APPENDIX III

ARMOURED RECONNAISSANCE IN NORMANDY

British Army reconnaissance doctrine and especially organization underwent considerable changes between 1940 and 1944, an evolution which was to continue during and after the Normandy campaign. By contrast, German reconnaissance units in Normandy were well integrated into their armoured divisions with established organization and procedures. And if due to their generally defensive stance in the campaign they were employed as much for their firepower as in covert intelligence gathering, this was also often the fate of their British counterparts.

BRITISH RECONNAISSANCE: CARS OR TANKS?

Unquestionably, the reconnaissance role was highly regarded by the British Army of 1944. But the proliferation of different British recce organizations can be confusing. Starting from the top: Dempsey’s Second Army had ‘Phantom’. This was a small body of forward observers charged with providing information directly from the front, cutting through layers of the military hierarchy to bring up-to-date progress reports to the Army high command. In Normandy, ‘A’ Squadron, GHQ Liaison Regiment deployed officer patrols of up to a dozen men to each corps headquarters, with further patrols operating at lower levels. Reporting directly from the forward battle area to Second Army HQ, Phantom can be regarded as a ‘self-contained’ system, independent of the day-to-day combat and intelligence activities of lower-level recce units. (Although front-line reconnaissance squadrons were occasionally called upon to assist Phantom.)

One level lower, the picture rapidly becomes less clear. Prior to the invasion, Montgomery was inspired to decree that the armoured car regiments previously working within each armoured division should be removed, to become corps-level assets. In their place, each division was to assign the reconnaissance role to a regiment of tanks: in 7th Armoured, the 8th Hussars; in 11th Armoured the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry; in Guards Armoured, the 2nd Welsh Guards. The idea of entrusting reconnaissance to battle tanks had certain attractions. In a shoot-out with an equivalent German reconnaissance battalion, the tanks might well have enjoyed the advantage in firepower and protection. But the matter was not so simple. Objections to the idea were manifold.

For one thing, reconnaissance units in Normandy rarely found themselves fighting it out with their opposite numbers. On arrival in Normandy, the 2nd Household Cavalry armoured car regiment had realised that ‘As beginners, we learnt much from the Inns of Court Regiment... one fact of paramount importance stood out. It was never the enemy’s light reconnaissance units which they had first encountered, but invariably either the tank or the anti-tank gun.’1 Put simply, the job of the armoured cars was to drive beyond the front lines to locate the enemy. In Normandy this usually meant driving until fired upon. A former armoured car officer (11th Hussars) recalled the role of the recce patrol was,

‘to drive straight on until some German gunner took a shot. On every one of these mornings, in the chill and damp of a half-darkness which heralded a nineteen-hour day, the driver of each car would lower himself into his seat and the crew would pile in afterwards, all knowing that their chances of survival rested on the aim of the first German gun or tank they might encounter.’2

Car commanders travelled with eyes peeled for signs of trouble, ready to trigger the smoke dispensers at a moment’s notice while ordering a rapid reverse, often keeping a grenade within easy reach. 2nd HCR Trooper David Niven nicely summarized a successful armoured car action.

‘Recceing down long wide road – Stop – Having a look – Jerry infantry pop up either side – throw grenades and open up with L.M.Gs. – then anti-tank guns open up, but misses. [sic] Reverse back, but still not sure of anti-tank exact position. Brave Commander says, “Let’s go back and see.” O.K. round the corner again – Bang! Rotten shots these Jerries, but we had the position taped and a big chalk from the General.’3

It was an axiom of the armoured car regiments that they could do what tanks could not. Though thin-skinned and vulnerable, the wheeled cars were relatively much more agile, much smaller targets, and much less noisy than tracked armour. Furthermore, it was generally recognised that much valuable observation was performed by patrol members dismounted from vehicles that had inched forward unheard and parked out of sight. Tank crews were somewhat less inclined to dismount in action, added to which was the limited numbers of ‘mark-one human eyeballs’ scanning the countryside from a five-man tank: typically only the commander’s, and then only when his head was exposed to enemy fire.

A further objection to corps-level attachment was the discovery during BLUECOAT that allocating armoured car squadrons to different formations was inefficient and wasteful. The Household Cavalry noted that, with their B Squadron lent-out to the neighbouring division,

‘on the 31st of July there was to be bad overlapping with “B” Squadron continuously being ordered to reconnoitre country already adequately patrolled by “D” Squadron, and vice versa. Little could be done about it for, being under different formations, there was no direct interchange of information.’4

Lastly, there was the rather odd situation of the ‘armoured reconnaissance battalion’ having within its structure (in common with other tank regiments) its very own ‘reconnaissance troop’ of a dozen or more light tanks!

The armoured formations executing BLUECOAT managed these issues in different ways. 6th Guards Tanks left very little record of how their organic reconnaissance assets performed in this battle, in part no doubt because the Churchill tanks had on occasion led the way unsupported over terrain that no other vehicle could cross. As far as 11th Armoured Division was concerned (following GOODWOOD), ‘One thing seemed quite clear and that was that we would neither wish nor be able to use the Northamptonshire Yeomanry as an armoured reconnaissance regiment.’5 By late July, Pip Roberts had briefed the Yeomanry to resume training for the role of battle tanks. And he got his way with VIII Corps, ensuring that his division was granted the reconnaissance services of (most of) 2nd HCR, and some from the Inns as well. Meanwhile the Guards stolidly attempted to follow the Montgomery doctrine to the letter. On 2 August, 2nd Welsh Guards found at last that, ‘they were to perform the role for which they had been specially trained – the role of an Armoured Reconnaissance Battalion covering the divisional front.’6 On that day, their three Cromwell tank squadrons set out on separate patrols, which would have been better performed by armoured cars. All three tank patrols proved abortive; meanwhile the true reconnaissance cars ranged the countryside far and wide: taking losses, but probing behind the enemy lines and returning valuable information.

THE CARS AND THE CORPS

The 1940 battle for France revealed substantial shortcomings in British Army reconnaissance practices. Though newly-mechanized, the army still tended to regard reconnaissance as a cavalry function. The mounts of the ‘cavalry’ units attached to infantry divisions now took the form of light tanks and lightly armoured, fully tracked ‘carriers’. But cavalry they remained: Dragoon Guards, Hussars, and Lancers.7 Among other lessons drawn from the campaign was a new awareness of the importance of armour, and it was soon clear that the new armoured formations being urgently created would absorb all the (armoured) cavalry units available. In consequence was formed the Reconnaissance Corps, specifically to provide a reconnaissance function to infantry divisions. Thus began a duality which was to last to war’s end: reconnaissance to be performed for armoured divisions by Royal Armoured Corps armoured car units; and for infantry divisions by the Reconnaissance Corps (initially motor-cycle mounted, but before long with their own complements of armoured vehicles).

Unsurprisingly, given their similar roles, the units of these two reconnaissance services had much in common. All the more so after June 1942 when the infantry divisions’ reconnaissance units adopted cavalry nomenclatures: the battalions becoming ‘regiments’, the companies ‘squadrons’, the platoons ‘troops’. And in January 1944 the Reconnaissance Corps became officially incorporated in the Royal Armoured Corps. Both the Reconnaissance Regiment and the Armoured Car Regiment were distinguished by small patrols of lightly armoured cars probing ahead of the parent formation, passing information back by radio links. On occasion, the cars and the Corps would even work together.

The principal differences between these units were in organization and philosophy. Organizationally, the Reconnaissance Regiment had more staying power. Each troop of scout cars was augmented by a section of infantry in armoured carriers; each squadron included a full ‘Assault Troop’ (equivalent to a platoon) of infantry in armoured half-tracks; and until 1945 the regiment included a troop of four towed 6-pounder antitank guns. Even unsupported by other units, the regiment therefore had a limited assault capability, and some ability to ‘go firm’ in defence, offering a bulwark to shelter the scout patrols. By contrast, the armoured car regiment had a lower proportion of infantrymen but additional medium and heavy cars: typically the big, 37mm-armed Chevrolet ‘Staghound’ and the bigger still AEC ‘Matador’ with its 75mm cannon. 8

It was only to be expected that units designed respectively to work with infantry and with armoured divisions would differ in their approach to battle. 2nd Household Cavalry made clear their displeasure at working with the infantry after B Squadron was loaned to 15th (Scottish) Division. During operations on 31 July,

‘It proved to be an unsatisfactory form of co-operation, for the different tempos of the armoured car and infantryman could not be fitted in to the same sector of the battle. Armoured cars are wasted if used as tanks, nor are they suitable for use as static pillboxes. The infantry company sees the battlefield in terms of a few fields to be cleared by slow, hard-fought slogging matches. The armoured car Squadron, with its speed and adaptability for swift darting thrusts, views it in terms of the limits of its wireless range.’9

Which, for the normal ‘19 Set’ might be little more than six miles, though often considerably less in the wooded hill country between Caumont and Vire.

BRITISH RECONNAISSANCE DURING BLUECOAT

Against the triumph of seizing the Souleuvre bridge on 31 July must be set a picture of some confusion and disjointed organization. Perhaps understandably given the close country, the narrow VIII Corps frontage, and known enemy minefields, the reconnaissance and armoured car regiments began the battle far behind the forward troops. Following the initial penetration of the German line on the first day, reconnaissance elements were hurried forward: 15th Reconnaissance Regiment (under 15th (Scottish) Divison); 2nd Household Cavalry (split between 11th Armoured and 15th Scottish); and the Inns of Court (recently removed from 11th Armoured but in the course of the battle performing various services under 11th Armoured, 15th Scottish, and Guards Armoured).

Even for the more experienced units, tactics were still evolving, sometimes by trial and error. Only after losing over forty vehicles to mines, including twenty-five scout cars, did 2nd Household Cavalry discover the value – and discomfort! – of lining vehicle floors with sandbags. Different units devised ingenious electrical devices in order more readily to trigger the all-important smoke dispensers. Experiments were conducted in pooling the Matadors with their heavy guns centrally to offer a concentrated fire base. Certain troop leaders became proficient at directing the fire of the Royal Artillery (to the occasional indignation of Matador crews who felt their 75mm could do anything a 25-pounder could). And – famously – the Inns created their ‘SoDs’ (Sawn-off Daimlers) by removing the turrets and mudguards of their Daimler armoured cars to reduce their conspicuous profile. The 2nd HCR stoutly opposed such desecration of the King’s property: ‘for to do so was to degrade a fine fighting vehicle to the status of a box on wheels.’10

Losses were predictably heavy in the close BLUECOAT country. At least the units involved had the satisfaction of knowing they were performing the role for which they had trained. This would not always be the case. By the war’s end, it was calculated that the Reconnaissance Corps units had spent a mere 12% of their time in the field on actual reconnaissance work.11 It was perhaps unsurprising that the reconnaissance regiment of an infantry division might be looked upon by infantry brigadiers as a unit low in numbers but with its complement of heavy weapons particularly appropriate for holding the line. More surprising perhaps was the periodic separation of the armoured car regiments from their vehicles. The 2nd HCR noted that,

‘Somewhat understandably, the infantry at battalion levels could never depart from the fixed idea that the armoured cars were either a new type of tank or else a sudden addition to their machine-gun strength.’

Less understanding was 2nd HCR’s Lieutenant Peake, occupying a slit trench when asked by Montgomery how he liked being infantry. ‘I hate it, sir, and the sooner I am allowed to get back to my armoured cars, for which I have been trained, the better.’12 The perennial fear was that, for all that might be learned from a spell as line infantry, the scout troops might lose some of their ‘dash’.

GERMAN ARMOURED RECONNAISSANCE

The evolution of German armoured reconnaissance organization and tactics in the course of the war reflected both changes in equipment (in particular increasingly heavy armour and armament) and the widely differing theatres of war. Tactics appropriate to 1940 France had to be considerably modified to meet the conditions of warfare in the open desert. And modified again in the east, to suit the vast distances of the open steppe, where reconnaissance elements might well be operating up to one hundred kilometres ahead of their division.13

The reconnaissance battalions of II. SS-Panzerkorps returned to Normandy in late June imbued with a lengthy period of training (in France, geared to repelling an invader) followed by a harsh baptism of fire in the Galician winter. On the Russian front, they had performed the main operational functions of the armoured reconnaissance unit. First of these was acting as the spearhead of the division, moving on a broad front to establish contact with the enemy well in advance of the main body. Secondly, in circumstances where an armoured thrust was driven through the enemy line, the highly mobile reconnaissance forces were employed to screen exposed flanks. In either case, it was normal for two companies to be in direct contact with the enemy. Two further companies plus the heavy armoured car company would normally be held in reserve, the latter to overcome any minor enemy resistance holding up the lighter cars.

At first the forward role was allocated to the four-wheeled armoured car companies. In Russia the atrocious conditions of snow and mud prevailing for much of the year seriously handicapped wheeled vehicles and led to increased use of half-tracks in the reconnaissance units. In particular, four-wheeled cars were progressively replaced by variants of the Sd.Kfz. 250series of light halftracks: whether troop carriers, turreted, or self-propelled guns. Though versatile, the Sd.Kfz. 250 was somewhat under-powered. It was lightly armoured compared to the heavy, eight-wheeled armoured cars. And its tracks made it noisier than the wheeled cars (especially the later, PSW 234 cars with their quieter diesel engines).

At the lowest level, doctrine laid down that leading vehicles should be closely followed by a radio car. The normal patrol would consist of three cars: two forward, acting together and in any case no more than 250 metres apart; and a radio car no more than 500 metres back, ready to report on any serious engagements. Heavy engagements were to be avoided. As one colonel of reconnaissance reported, ‘The best patrols I had were with clean guns... A report giving the location of an enemy tank leaguer is of infinitely more value than five shot-up lorries.’14 Though in extreme situations patrols could call upon their own unit’s own heavy weapons troops (infantry and antitank guns rarely being available and tanks too noisy and slow to accompany reconnaissance patrols). A single patrol was not to split up: if parallel routes had to be reconnoitred, they should be investigated one at a time. Commanding features and built-up areas were to be avoided; if unavoidable they were to be approached with caution and speedily bypassed. Woods and obstacles should similarly be approached with caution, with a leading car attempting to draw enemy fire to reveal enemy presence and positions (a tactic reported to be simple but extremely effective).

By the time of the Normandy campaign, the Panzeraufklärungsabteilung was a powerful armoured force15 with a variety of equipment suited to its various tasks. Which in the north-west Europe campaign of 1944 were to be very different from those of the eastern front. In a prolonged period of fairly static defence, the unit might well find itself charged with holding the line as infantry. This was especially the case when vehicle losses and shortages of fuel restricted mobility, as experienced by the ‘Hitlerjugend’ division in late June. On the other hand, the better-equipped reconnaissance units did on occasion enjoy distinct opportunities to exploit their blend of mobility and firepower. In the fluid situation that arose between le Bény-Bocage and the Perrier ridge in the early days of August, the reconnaissance cars’ handicap of light armour might count for less than their stealth and speed. With British supply lines running through disputed territory, convoys were vulnerable to ambush by buccaneering armoured patrols. Logistic support vehicles of both sides were captured and recaptured. Early morning breakfast deliveries to well camouflaged forward troops periodically ended up in enemy hands.

It had long been established that well trained armoured reconnaissance forces could profitably be used in pursuit of a disorganized enemy, or even in the classic hasty German counter-attack against a newly lost position, before the enemy could go firm on the ground. What is more, as the tank strength of the Panzerdivisionen waned, the remaining armoured reconnaissance companies grew in stature. An extreme example is Hauptsturmführer Viktor Gräbner’s 9. SS-Panzeraufklärungsabteilung. The force Gräbner led in his ill-fated 18 September charge across the Arnhem bridge represented the principal remaining mobile element of its division. More typical was the action for which Gräbner was decorated mere hours before his death. In the night of 16-17 July, all five companies of his battalion took part in a spirited counter-attack against Noyers-Bocage, seized by the British 59th Division in the course of Operation POMEGRANATE. The reconnaissance companies used shock, mobility, and firepower to the full.16 By the morning of 17 July, the ground previously lost by 277. Infanteriedivision had been won back. Shortly after, in the early morning of 22 July, the sister Abteilung, SS-Sturmbannführer Heinrich Brinkmann’s 10. SS-Pz.AA assaulted the village of May-sur-Orne in broad daylight, without the tank support that had been planned. Though failing to gain outright control, the third and fourth reconnaissance companies (supported by the cannon fire of the second) nevertheless got infantry sections into half of the village, to which they clung until relieved the following day.17

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