Chapter 1


It has been suggested that Allied victory in Normandy was inevitable once a successful lodgement was achieved on 6 June, or at least following the linking of the five beachheads by D plus 6. Rommel himself famously declared that his only hope was to stop the invader on the first day, on the beaches.1 After the war von Rundstedt was asked if he had hoped to defeat the invasion. His answer: ‘Not after the first few days’.2 It can certainly be argued that by early July the Germans’ last realistic chance of landing a strategic counterpunch had passed. The Allies, in particular the British Second Army, consistently prevented the Germans from freeing armoured formations from the defensive line to form a strategic reserve. And the generals with the vision and skill to direct such a force were remorselessly being removed from the theatre: Geyr von Schweppenburg on 10 June, Marcks on 12 June, Rommel on 17 July (all falling prey to air attack).

But if Rommel believed that all would be settled in the course of ‘the longest day’, this was not to be the invaders’ experience. As early as D plus 1, welcoming his army commander to the 1st Division command post on the bluff above Omaha beach, General Huebner complained, ‘These goddam Boche just won’t stop fighting.’ Omar Bradley’s response was prophetic: ‘It’ll take time and ammunition; perhaps more than we reckon on both.’3


The Germans fought on. Their cause might now seem hopeless to those blessed with all the wisdom of hindsight. But still they resisted. The frustrated invaders found their opponents’ dogged defence of Normandy interminable.4 Come the end of June, by which time all Normandy should have been in Allied hands, barely a fifth of that objective had been achieved. As the weeks dragged by and June turned to July, progress against a determined enemy was disturbingly slow. The city of Caen, supposed to have been taken on 6 June, finally fell to the British and Canadians on 9 July; St-Lô to the Americans on 18 July. These victories were symbolic, but anticlimactic. In each case, the victors were bequeathed sterile rubble beyond which stood the enemy in prepared positions. On the ground, from the British airborne infantry in their narrow, mosquito-plagued bridgehead east of the Orne River, to the western flank where American GIs struggled through the hedgerows of the bocage country and the swamps of the Prairies Marécageuses south of Carentan, few had any sense of imminent breakthrough. Behind the lines, an impatient press hungry for success stories began to write of ‘stalemate’ and even ‘trench warfare’.5 Fears were voiced that a stagnating battle for Normandy might assume First World War rates of progress and consequent weight of casualties.

Nevertheless, the Allies in Normandy had gained an advantage denied to their opponents. While German armoured divisions were having to be committed to the defensive line of battle as soon as they arrived in theatre, the Allies succeeded in amassing armoured reserves. True, the Americans lacked the space and the terrain to deploy their armoured formations. But in the east the British were not so encumbered. At the end of June, the British VIII Corps flung a fresh, reinforced armoured division through to the open plateau south of the Odon River (incidentally forestalling the newly-arriving II. SS-Panzerkorps’ plans for a breakthrough to the beaches).6 After Operation EPSOM, 11th Armoured Division had the luxury of pulling out of the line before being incorporated along with two other armoured divisions into a reformed VIII Corps for another hammer blow against the German defensive line.7 And following GOODWOOD, the British armour was again withdrawn to lick its wounds, re-equip, and prepare for the next offensive.


In conference on 10 July, General Bradley confessed his disappointment with his own (American First Army) progress, to which Montgomery magnanimously told him to ‘take all the time he needed’ to devise a new plan.8 In fact, Bradley took very little time to refine his ideas. In a change to the preferred American policy of applying pressure across the entire front, he would strike a single point, preceded by carpet bombing. Operation COBRA would require all the United States First Army’s reserves of strength, including the American V Corps’ motorized 1st Infantry Division, the ‘Big Red One’. Having fought its way across Omaha beach on D-Day and on inland as far as Caumont-l’Éventé, this division enjoyed a relatively quiet period in Caumont before its relief on 13 July and move west to join VII Corps. In its place, V Corps received the newly-arrived 5th Infantry Division. In support of these moves, Montgomery agreed that the British would take over the Caumont sector, allowing the inexperienced US 5th Infantry to concentrate on a single-regiment front. So, on 22 July, General Dempsey gave the order for British XXX Corps to extend the inter-army boundary to the west of the town, taking under its wing 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division which would hold the extreme British right.


‘Take all the time you need!’ Montgomery told General Bradley.

The men of 15th Scottish were enjoying a rest after their second major Normandy battle. In mid-July, Operation GREENLINE (a push towards Évrecy, west of Hill 112) had been a miserable experience: a night assault which one senior officer described as ‘An ill planned hazardous operation with no chance of success’.9 Losses had been heavy. 227 Brigade’s Brigadier Mackintosh-Walker fell to a direct hit on his scout car. Each of the brigade’s battalions had suffered. The 2nd Gordons lost 129; the 10th Highland Light Infantry 76, including a company commander killed and the commanding officer invalided out; and the 2nd Argylls 71 ‘without ever being in contact with the enemy.’10 Though welcome, the following period out of action was spoiled by spells of pouring rain and occasional random night bombing raids. Many men were sent off to VIII Corps ‘Rest Camps’ though some of these turned out to be little more than slit trenches within earshot of busy artillery batteries. Others enjoyed trips into Bayeux and to the cinema at Cully, which helped to relieve the strain of recent battles. For the first time in thirty-six days, bread was issued to the troops in place of biscuit. Baths were also an addition to the daily routine, though not appreciated by all.

‘There were trips for baths but these were so far in the rear that no one liked the trip, and the sight of so many men in the rear areas only upset the Jocks.’11

‘We were afforded the luxury of a change of clothing from the mobile laundry which had appeared and a visit to the mobile showers. We even went to an ENSA concert and began to realise that these creature comforts were commonplace to the base wallahs and the HQ troops.’12

Then, after just four days, on 23 July the period of rest was suddenly cut short. Leaving behind 46 Brigade in the Odon sector, the rest of 15th Scottish was summarily ordered west. The divisional reconnaissance regiment led the way, moving

‘secretly to the extreme right of the Second Army front, relieving the 5th United States Division south of Balleroy in the Caumont sector. It was like going from the bustle of Oxford Street into the tranquillity of Hyde Park, this journey which began in the dust and smell and clatter of the country around Caen and ended in an unscarred land of little fields.’13

Not far behind followed the infantry battalions, among them the 10th Highland Light Infantry.

‘There were Brigade O Groups and we knew something was in the wind... When we got on the trucks we were ordered to wear our steel helmets – no balmorals to be shown at all. We were astounded when the trucks turned away from Caen towards Bayeux and we realised that we may be due for a reprieve. The smell of death and dust behind us, our spirits rose as the country became greener and the scars of war fell away.’

At length, the infantry dismounted from the trucks.

‘Marching along the road gave us ample time to survey the untouched countryside, it was all very pleasant and the exercise welcome after the long journey cramped in trucks. We were surprised to see an American signal line team checking telephone wires from the back of a jeep, our own signallers, who checked their lines on their flat feet were rather envious at this sight, “trust the Yanks to take things easy.”’14

When British signallers came on the scene, they were impressed by the Americans’ extravagant communications: a network of thirty miles of cable wire around Caumont. With typical British economy,

‘This was taken over and greatly simplified’ by the 10th HLI Signals Officer.15

First impressions of the American allies were mostly favourable. The Gordons found that,

‘Relieving American troops was a new experience. The men of the 2nd Regiment, 5th U.S. Division were of fine physique, well trained, and admirably equipped. Their rations seemed particularly good and their welfare service elaborate. Moreover they were an open-handed lot for it is mentioned that they “were not particular about what they left behind”.’16

It was recorded by 44 (Lowland) Brigade,

‘Neither side had as yet considered it worthwhile to make a serious attack in this difficult area. It was also a pleasure to meet the Americans and to compare their methods with our own. This 5th Division had fine human material - incidentally, many of German descent - and they were clearly well trained. The Jocks took an instant liking to them, although they felt a trifle superior in view of their experiences on the Odon, for these Americans had done little fighting. Three particularly striking features of the American Army were noticeable: their unlimited manpower, which gave them lavish establishments, their excellent equipment and rations, and the enterprise of their welfare services, which brought them baths and cinema in the front line.’17


The Americans left a network of telephone cable.

And the 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers were particularly appreciative.

‘Hitherto the Americans were a kind of legend beyond the horizon, but here they were, very decidedly, with hearts as big as houses. They seemed thrilled to see us, and proudly showed their automatic rifles to groups of admiring Jocks; and “A” Company fairly blinked when the particular company we relieved, burdened with more of the amenities of life than they could carry, enthusiastically handed over the whole of their surplus supplies before moving out... enough lavatory paper for a brigade, quantities of excellent tobacco and cigarettes, candy, various tinned foods, and cigars... quite the most refreshing thing that had happened to us in Normandy.’18

So, on the night of 23 July, Scots took up their new positions. 227 (Highland) Brigade replaced the 11th US Infantry Regiment: the 10th HLI in Caumont itself, and the 2nd Argylls to the east around le Repas.19 2nd Gordons were in reserve, though on 24 July it was found that the Argylls were too thinly spread to maintain contact with 43rd (Wessex) Infantry Division on their left, and a company of Gordons was brought up to fill the gap. To the west, 44 (Lowland) Brigade took over from the US 10th Regiment around Villeneuve and la Vacquerie, from the outer orchards of Caumont westward to the new inter-army boundary with the Americans. Here, 8th Royal Scots and 6th Royal Scots Fusiliers held the line with 6th King’s Own Scottish Borderers in reserve.


‘...not particular about what they left behind.’

As well as appreciating a countryside relatively untouched by war, the Jocks found the combination of their recently acquired battle experience and the lack of enemy action reassuring. On the Argylls’ front,

‘patrols went out every night with the object of capturing a prisoner to discover if 21st Panzer were relieving 2nd Panzer Division, as was suspected. But they could not make contact, the enemy having apparently pulled back a good distance and decided to cover his forward area with machine-gun and mortar fire.’

The Argylls’ historian noted the particular appreciation of

‘much better counter-mortar organization at the Division level’; the troops ‘no longer had the feeling... that the bombs “followed them about”, which was a great relief.’20

In Caumont itself, long deserted by civilians and held by only a light screen of defenders, Sergeant Green’s intelligence section manned a forward observation post.


‘Caumont was situated on the crest of a hill and though giving an excellent view of the enemy lines, also provided Jerrie with a first class view of the forward outskirts of the town. In front of Caumont the ground descended steeply into a wooded valley before gradually rising to the crest of Hill 309, which could be clearly seen at a distance of about six miles. The front line was forward of Caumont a hundred yards or so but in actual fact the valley was in No Mans Land and the hunting ground of night patrols. The Americans who had occupied the area had been leading a quiet life and in consequence Jerrie had also been behaving very quietly, the policy seemed to be a mutual understanding that neither side bothered the other very much, a nice peaceful kind of war.’

‘The Americans proved to be somewhat afflicted by nerves, and much affected by the unnatural silence, the slightest sound being sufficient to trouble them immensely. They called the valley in front of Caumont “Death Valley” and insisted that to show ones self in daylight was to commit suicide under a hail of Jerrie machine gun fire. They had modified their behaviour accordingly. Their forward troops stayed in their slit trenches without moving a muscle and were fed by night. They had allowed Jerrie to dominate the scene, though it was obvious that Jerrie had never taken advantage of the fact. In view of the fact that the enemy was reputed to be the 2nd Panzer Division, this all seemed rather odd.’21


In fact, the enemy opposite was no longer ‘2nd Panzer’, the ‘Wien’ (Vienna, Austria) armoured division. That formation had indeed operated in the area south of Caumont since mid-June, periodically detaching armoured forces to support actions further east.22 But from 21 July, 2. Panzerdivision was progressively withdrawn from the sector as it was relieved by 326. Infanteriedivision. This was the formation which was settling-in to its defensive role as the Scots infantry arrived, and which was destined to bear the brunt of the BLUECOAT assault.

The 326. Infanteriedivision was formed late in 1942 in Westphalia. Originally equipped for a static role on occupation duty in France, the division moved in February 1944 to join 15. Armee, defending the Pas de Calais sector. Though considered a likely target for Allied invasion, this sector remained quiet. The formation not only remained at full strength, but was augmented to the status of a Type 44 line infantry division. In this role, 326. Infanteriedivision had three regiments (numbered 751, 752, and 753), plus a full complement of support arms including a Füsilierbataillon(infantry), engineer battalion, artillery regiment, and an antitank battalion. This last unit included the division’s meagre complement of armour: self-propelled 7.5cm antitank guns including fourteen open-topped Marder and ten Sturmgeschütze.



One of the division’s few Marder antitank guns transporting a section of infantry.


Sturmgeschütz III with the long 7.5cm anti-tank gun.

The division received warning orders to move to the Normandy front in mid-July and by 23 July the 326. Füsilierbataillon23 was in place south of Caumont, permitting 2. Panzerdivision to commence its withdrawal (though the division’s second, Panzer IV-equipped tank battalion remained to cover the arrival of the rest of the relieving infantry).

The newcomers had a broad swathe of country to defend. The two regiments in the line, 751. and 752. Grenadiere, had between them five battalions covering a front of almost ten miles: from the junction with their LXXIV Korps neighbours, the 276. Infanteriedivision to the east of Villers-Bocage, to the Drôme river west of Caumont, which marked the boundary not only of two corps but of the two German armies in Normandy.

Fortunately for the newcomers, although lacking battle experience they had suffered few casualties and their manpower was up to strength (albeit the strength of the division’s infantry was eked out by the inclusion of ‘Ost’ battalions of dubious quality). The division was also fortunate that its predecessors bequeathed a comprehensive set of defences including extensive minefields, wire entanglements, and cunningly camouflaged firing positions.

The men’s resolve was further stiffened by propaganda. By order of the divisional commander Generalleutnant Viktor Drabich-Waechter, all troops going up to the line were to be given a ‘pep talk’, the contents inaccurate in several respects, but nevertheless representative of the harsh discipline which bound the disparate elements of the Heer.


326 Division going up to the line.

(a) You are relieving a SS formation in a quiet sector.

(b) You will be opposed by troops of the 5 U.S. Infantry Division who have suffered fairly severe casualties.

(c) There is no armour against you.

(d) The enemy will drop, or fire over, leaflets. No one below the rank of major will pick them up. These leaflets invite you to desert, and enjoy the amenities of British prisoner of war camps. Remember that if you do, you will be taken to England and run the risk of death by V1. After that you will be shipped to the United States or Canada for life-long labour. Or you may be exchanged for a British or American paratroop (of which we have captured thousands) tried by court-martial and shot. In any case, your families will suffer in consequence, exclusion from the German Volksgemeinschaft being the least of their troubles.24

Such were the incentives intended to deter the German infantryman from thoughts of surrender. For the non-German troops in the division’s two Ost battalions, sterner measures were employed. Each company of Poles received a lecture informing them that arrangements were in place whereby all captured Polish would be returned in exchange for British deserters. Prisoners taken later would claim that they believed none of this, and that they read and believed the British pamphlets that fell in their midst. Nevertheless, so long as the division remained intact, harsh discipline continued to be enforced.


Following Operation GOODWOOD, VIII Corps had been withdrawn into reserve. The three armoured divisions were transferred to other corps,25 leaving the corps headquarters redundant, ‘a headquarters without troops’. With no immediate prospect of employment for the thousands of headquarters staff and hundreds of vehicles, many discovered the delights of ‘swanning’ the length of the Normandy front - including the American zone. While the headquarters site

‘wore a strangely deserted air,’ it was surmised that ‘the appearance of cars bearing the “White Knight” in such widely separated spots as Cherbourg and Caen must have caused some slight bewilderment to the enemy intelligence service.’26

These diversions ended unexpectedly soon. Barely a week passed before a warning order was received from 2nd Army to prepare for renewed operations. Noting that the recently extended front of XXX Corps was somewhat unwieldy, General Dempsey proposed to re-form VIII Corps for action in the hitherto quiet Caumont sector, tentatively planned for 2 August. Barely had the corps headquarters begun preparations, when in the early afternoon of 28 July came the dramatic news that a major VIII Corps’ operation was being brought forward: to first light on Sunday, 30 July.


General Miles Dempsey.

This was problematic. Along with 11th Armoured Division, the corps headquarters itself was still located towards the eastern end of the bridgehead. Guards Armoured and the corps artillery were even further east, on the far bank of the Orne River, on call to 2nd Canadian Corps.

‘The task of preparation seemed superhuman and more than could be done in the bare thirty-six hours available... The one saving grace was that the infantry division making the initial attack, 15 (Scottish) Division, was an old and trusted friend and moreover was already in situ.’27

Old friends indeed. There had been some bad feeling when 15th Scottish had been removed from VIII Corps on the eve of Operation GOODWOOD.28 Other friends too were to be reunited. As armour support for the opening phase of the battle, the Scots infantry was to be reunited with 6th Guards Tank Brigade. Though yet inexperienced in battle, the brigade’s three Churchill tank battalions had trained extensively in England with 15th Scottish. This was to have important consequences. But meanwhile, VIII Corps had to get to Caumont.29

The call to action was as sudden and unexpected for 11th Armoured Division as it had been for 15th Scottish. For one tank regiment,

‘Welfare is beginning to get a grip on things... we arrive at St. Aubyn [sic, St-Aubin-sur-Mer] and somewhat primitive arrangements are laid on for our amusement... a few of us venture into the rather choppy and dirty sea... The sudden appearance of a D.R. [despatch rider] asking for a 23rd. Hussar Officer seems to dispel the serenity of the little seaside resort... “all ranks rejoin your unit at once.”’30

The party, such as it was, was over.

Advance parties already on their way to scout and mark assembly areas for the following regiments were the first to experience the difficult westward journey.

‘The map square towards which the scout car now had to take me was further west than any British unit had yet been... our mission had to thrust, check and cajole its way across every intervening formation’s north-south centre-line, with their unending supply and reinforcement columns... At several crossings of centre-lines I could get us through other people’s columns only by mounting bumpy verges or diverting across country where the going looked feasible. The driver performed well and I contrived to attend to my map as well as shouting at column leaders and the occasional motor-cyclist traffic-controller.’31


Infantry and Churchill tanks reunited.

The difficulty of the movement can hardly be overstated. 11th Armoured Division faced a drive of over twenty-five miles; Guards Armoured fifty. 11th Armoured would arrive only just in time for the forthcoming battle; when it started, elements of the Guards would still be east of the Orne. Movement of armour was to be (as far as possible) during the brief summer night, along wholly inadequate roads, and cutting across the maintenance routes of three Army Corps: XII, XXX, and II Canadian. From the perspective of one experienced observer, the move was:

‘a major and complicated operation... That it could be carried out successfully speaks volumes for the efficiency of the Staff and the state of training of the troops. It was in this way that the new army of 1944 differed from the new army of 1915. One had time to train and the other did not. In one there were ample staff officers, while in the other the source of staff officers had disappeared between Mons and the Marne.’32

But in spite of all that efficiency, the move was a taxing and frustrating experience. A tank co-driver with the 2nd Fife & Forfar Yeomanry recorded,

‘We are told we shall be on the Start Line for a new attack at daybreak, so I drive to keep Robby fresh from 2030 hrs to 0330 hrs – 7 hrs solid without a break in the dark... The tanks were not allowed to use the metalled roads in the bridgehead as they were breaking up fast under the traffic supplying the Army and so we were driving on earth marked out tracks. This created a dense fog of dust clouds... It was hell trying to see and follow the tank in front of us in this sand storm in the dark. A wet dew mist rose during the night and my face became encased with a thick mask... I could only keep awake by twisting my ear till it hurt or singing at the top of my voice... I was doing the driving to allow Robby to try to rest to be fresh to take us into battle. We were not to know that we should not be able to get more than a catnap for the next ten days.’33

One antitank regiment found that,

‘What with the dust, the gathering darkness, and the enormous amount of armour on the move, both batteries’ L.O.s [liaison officers] who were responsible for guiding the M.10s in, had a bad time... As for us, with only half a mile to go, our M.10s got mixed up with 6 Guards Tank Brigade, missed their guides in the dust of a tortuous little village called Le Mesnil and drove for miles across country. Tempers were only soothed by finding that the new area was already riddled with well-made German slit trenches, all lined with straw, so there was no digging to be done.’34

Moving back up to Caumont, the 10th HLI found the place transformed.

‘We found the scene behind the lines vastly different to when we had arrived a week before... We were amazed to see the numbers of tanks and guns which were streaming along the roads, last time we had heard of 11th Armoured Div they were over at Caen, now here they were. But most welcome of all was the sight of the sign of 6th Guards Tank brigade with their Churchill tanks.’35

Welcome indeed, and more welcome still on the morrow.


XXX Corps was intended to take the lead. Pride of place went to the 43rd (Wessex) Division, an experienced formation, though still licking serious wounds incurred in the later operations around Hill 112. The Wessex were to advance from Briquessard, through Cahagnes, and on to St-Pierre-du-Fresne, an axis slightly west of southerly. The division’s objective was to be Point 361 [modern 358], the summit of the Bois du Homme.36 Another infantry division, 50th (Northumbrian) would cover the exposed Wessex left flank. 7th Armoured Division was to be held back in corps reserve, ready to respond to any collapse of the German front by exploiting in the direction of le Bény-Bocage or even distant Vire.


The church at Caumont.

VIII Corps was allocated the subsidiary role of covering the XXX Corps right flank.37 While 15th (Scottish) would advance down the one good road leading south from Caumont to secure the western end of the Bois du Homme massif, 11th Armoured would conform to the general axis, moving across country and ready to exploit any German collapse as far to the south-west as Petit Aunay (a junction on the RN 175 highway [modern D 675], six kilometres west of St-Martin-des-Besaces).


43rd (Wessex) Division was to advance to the Bois du Homme.

Security was a major concern. The dense terrain to be attacked was eminently defensible. It was hoped to balance this defensive advantage by exploiting surprise to the full. Formation signs were to be removed from the vehicles hurrying westward. Radio silence was enforced (no easy matter when the armoured units were instructed to move under cover of darkness!). Aerial artillery observation (a major tactical advantage) was limited to the usual, routine number of overflights; and no artillery other than that of 15th Scottish already present would be allowed to pre-register targets before the battle.


Strict orders ensured that the few tank men allowed to reconnoitre no man’s land had to wear infantry helmets in place of their distinctive black berets. Though perhaps this stricture was not applied to the 2nd Army commander on his visit to an observation post in the ruins of Caumont.

‘No less a person than General Dempsey came up to the OP one day, and along with him was the Div Commander of the 11th Armoured Division, and the presence of such people obviously meant trouble for Jerrie. Dempsey scanned the enemy area from the OP and with the gestures allowed to such important people he showed how the attack was going in, turning to the I Section he said, “keep your eyes on Jerrie, the more you see, the more we shall kill.”’38

(The Intelligence Section suppressed their smiles: in four days they had not seen a single German.)

Major-General Gordon MacMillan, General Officer Commanding 15th Scottish, made his own hasty tour of his infantry brigades. The most heartening news he could give his men on the eve of battle was that, due to the secrecy, the unsuspecting enemy would be totally unprepared for their assault. Nevertheless,

‘In spite of his heartening words, General Macmillan [sic] could not have been feeling very cheerful for the army orders - worked out in haste off a map - gave him a start line which he could not reach without putting in a couple of preliminary attacks to clear the way to it.’39

Sure enough, while the leading infantry regiments were allotted objectives a short way beyond the Caumont ridge, the second phase of the battle would be from a Start Line much further south, and a third phase from further still.

The ambitious VIII Corps plan drew heavily on recent experience. Two weeks previously, VIII Corps’ Operation GOODWOOD had enjoyed a massive initial aerial bombardment of the German front lines, but had ground to a halt later on the first day. Perhaps, it was suggested, a programme of bombing phased to precede the advance throughout the day might have achieved better results. So, while the ‘heavies’ of RAF Bomber Command would again be called upon to blast an opening for XXX Corps’ advance, VIII Corps would instead receive the support of medium bombers, commencing a full two hours after H Hour, designed to facilitate the second stage of the operation; and a further wave of medium bombers arriving nine hours after H Hour to support the third and final stage.

General MacMillan might have been forgiven for having his doubts about the air support promised. His orders included the ominous statement that the operation would go ahead with or without the air support programme planned. A month previously, his division’s first battle had gone ahead in spite of weather that prevented the air support on which they had counted. For BLUECOAT, an already-complex artillery plan had to be further complicated by alternative arrangements should air support not materialize.


Following an air strike by Allied aircraft on a German supply convoy officers and NCOs consider what action to take.

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