Chapter 3

SUNDAY 30 JULY: BAFFING UP THE CHARLIE LOVE

Few formations in Normandy learned so many tactical lessons so quickly as did 11th Armoured Division. In the division’s first battle, its infantry and tank brigades had been forced to operate apart.1 Its second battle culminated in a classic example of successful coordination of the divisional armour, infantry, and artillery.2 Now, at the outset of its final battle in Normandy, the division had been restructured along lines devised by its youthful commander.3

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General George Philip Bradley (‘Pip’) Roberts, commanding 11th Armoured Division, at 37 was the youngest general officer in the British Army.

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11th Armoured Division formed into two columns.

FLANK COVER

For the first day of BLUECOAT, 11th Armoured Division was to screen the right flank of 15th Scottish. Ideally, such a task would have been assigned to an infantry division, but none was available. So, on the narrow front between 15th Scottish and the Drôme River, the two brigades took their places. With the Northants Yeomanry already on unofficial ‘permanent loan’, 159 ‘Infantry’ Brigade was also given the tanks of the 2nd Fife & Forfarshire Yeomanry for the operation; likewise 29 ‘Armoured’ Brigade was loaned the 3rd Monmouthshire infantry. So, in keeping with the new concept, each brigade had available a balanced force of two tank and two infantry units.

To the east, 29 Brigade formed the left column, with Monmouths and Hussars as ‘Advanced Guard’; the right-hand 159 Brigade column was headed in similar manner by the Herefords and the Fifes. (Was it purely coincidental that each brigadier posted his ‘borrowed’ units in the front line?) Given the close country to be crossed, it was sensible that the infantry would lead the way. So, each of the Advanced Guard columns was placed under command of the infantry colonel present. The two tank regiments, falling respectively under command of the Monmouths and the Herefords, were to follow as closely as the terrain would permit. For this purpose, Royal Engineer parties were supposed to have prepared three tracks for each column, any minefields to be cleared to a width of 600 yards. This proved ‘quite impossible’.4 Given the close country, the density of mines, and the late arrival of the division mere hours before H Hour, it was all the sappers could do to clear the actual tracks leading to the Start Line.

In the pre-dawn hours, the two columns moved out of the concentration areas where they had all-too-briefly rested, marching forward to the Forming Up Places. By first light, the leading ranks were jostling through congested fields and lanes to the northern slopes of the Caumont ridge.

‘We are moving along a narrow lane with ditches and high hedges on each side. Enemy positions have been reported quite close to us and the Infantry are moving slowly in the fields on either side. I feel sorry for these chaps carrying their equipment and rifles, climbing banks and breaking through hedges... we are nearing our objective, [i.e., the pre-battle Forming Up Place] a village called Villeneuve.’5

MONMOUTHS AND HUSSARS

During the hurried preparation for the assault,6 it had been noted that the narrow roads and farm tracks around Caumont would make vehicular movement difficult, and that it simply would not be practical to pass one division through another as had been attempted in previous battles. Nevertheless, there was some inevitable jostling between the left-hand column of 11th Armoured and elements of 15th Scottish on the boundary between the two divisions. As the second wave of Jocks and Churchill tanks on the crest of the ridge awaited their advance to their Start Lines far ahead, the 23rd Hussars and 3rd Monmouthshires struggled to reach their own Start Line by the assigned hour.

Around 07.00 hours, the Monmouths’ leading companies managed to enter the battle. The first shock came from an unlooked-for quarter. A 5.5 inch round from one of the British medium batteries fell short, amongst the left-hand leading company. The company commander, Captain Bretz (a Canadian) was wounded and a whole platoon effectively out of action with seventeen men down.

‘Someone shouted, “Stretcher bearers!” The cry was taken up elsewhere. Close behind me lay a softly moaning body, face down in the corn. It was Williams. He had been carrying the “eighteen set”. It lay smashed on the ground. The back of his tunic was ripped open. I lifted a piece to reveal a huge wound... “Don’t worry about the bloody artillery! Get moving! Everyone’s held up! Leave the wounded! Leave them! For Christ’s sake get moving!” We got moving.’7

Too many British advances in Normandy had hitherto been brought to a stop far short of their objectives, and the Herefords had still barely reached their Start Line. With the roar of the approaching Hussars’ Shermans in their ears, the surviving Monmouths hastily marked fallen men by sticking their rifles in the ground, then moved on. The tanks were advancing two squadrons ‘up’: B to the left and A right. At this point, the Hussars were troubled less by enemy fire than by picking their way across small fields and narrow lanes, through ‘country so awkward to negotiate that the squadrons had the very greatest difficulty in keeping with their respective [infantry] companies.’8

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A mile of this heavy going led the foremost tanks to the north-west approaches of Sept-Vents. Here was encountered the first serious opposition ‘which 6 Gds Tk Bde on our left had only partially dealt with.’9 The Hussars’ own history conceded that ‘the Fifteenth Scottish were battling vigorously in the eastern edge of the village.’10 Here the Monmouths were sorely tried by enemy fire, and the Hussars’ B Squadron lost Lieutenant Blackman’s tank to a High Explosive shell. But the greater problem for the tanks was the minefields. Two A Squadron tanks went up on mines. C Squadron came forward in an attempt to outflank the opposition, but was also stopped by mines. B Squadron was assisted by Sherman flails from the 1st Lothian & Border Yeomanry.11 A lane was painstakingly cleared so that the tanks could support the Monmouths onto the objective, which the infantry secured after a stiff fight. Brief reorganisation, then the infantry trudged on south, the tanks doing their best to keep up through the bocage.

At length, the Monmouths had penetrated the crust of the enemy front line. Moving south from Sept Vents, they were held up as much by the terrain as by confused skirmishes with pockets of enemy infantry and light vehicles. Denied use of the single southbound road (dedicated to 15th Scottish Division), the sections struggled through tiny hedgerow-lined fields and orchards. Where trackways existed, adjoining woods had to be methodically cleared by the infantry, a process greatly impeded where mines were encountered. By 15.30 hours, the column reached Fierville, a mile south-west of Sept Vents; 16.20 hours found them a thousand yards further at les Hommetières. At last, towards dusk, a hamlet appeared on a spur of rising ground above a stream. St-Jean-des-Essartiers was ‘a pleasant little country place, similar to any Devonshire village, with a small corrugated iron chapel and quaint old church approached by a tree lined avenue, the village shop and a farm or two.’12 And here, the Germans were prepared to resist.

A planned artillery ‘stonk’ having been cancelled, by a higher authority unconvinced that the place was enemy-held, the Hussars’ B Squadron arrived and began to pour fire up towards the buildings. Meanwhile C Squadron worked around the east of the village, knocking out an antitank gun. Opposition collapsed as pincers of infantry and tanks converged in the village, now in pitch darkness save for one enormous fire showering sparks down on passing tanks. By the time the resulting traffic jam was sorted out, it was clear that infantry and tanks would make no further progress, and they harboured together in mutual support for the night. Close behind, 29 Brigade Tac HQ advanced to pass the night barely a mile to the north-west. Brigadier Harvey was still chafing at the failure to reach the tantalizingly close objective of St-Martin-des-Besaces. Nor were the Hussars entirely satisfied with the outcome of the first day; but they gladly acknowledged the achievement of their accompanying infantry: ‘Our assistance owing to the poor going had not been as great as we had hoped, but there is no doubt that they [the Monmouths] had put up a very fine performance.’13

THE RIGHT COLUMN

The infantry of 1st Battalion, The Herefordshire Regiment and the Sherman tanks of the 2nd Fife & Forfarshire Yeomanry began the day in their respective concentration areas around le Ruel, near Cormolain, a good four miles northwest of Caumont. A very early start was required to get the Advanced Guard of the right-hand column to the start line on the ridge west of Caumont by H Hour, 06.55. A five hour march found the infantry on their Start Line, ready to advance through the gaps in minefields which were to have been cleared during the night, ‘but it was not done properly, and at the very commencement of the attack a carrier was blown up.’14 The Fifes, trying to follow roads, had an even more inauspicious start. ‘The start line was once again in the area held by another Division, who had again laid mines which caused confusion.’15

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St-Jean-des-Essartiers.

Advancing south to their first, orchard objective, the Herefords’ right-hand company came under heavy machine gun and mortar fire. The Fifes’ B Squadron advanced around the right flank of the infantry ‘trying to blast down enemy opposition,’ but before long ‘themselves got entangled with an unsuspected minefield. In a short time they lost no fewer than seven tanks, a most unfortunate squandering of the squadron’s attacking potentialities.’16

An A Squadron observer noted,

‘Tanks went up on mines each side of us... meet heavy shellfire – theirs or ours? poor bloody infantry going over like ninepins, they were advancing and there is no cover nor the chance to dig in... heavy mortar fire, the plan is for the infantry to lead in this now heavy wooded area and our job is to clear away machine gun nests.’17

On the left, A Squadron fared better, supporting the infantry to their first objective, an orchard just north of the Caumont-Torigini road. Here, tanks and infantry were to pause for over two hours while medium bombers pounded the subsequent objectives to the south. During this time the tanks suffered no loss, but as so often happened in Normandy, positions abandoned by the enemy infantry were registered for DF [artillery defensive fire] tasks. Raking bursts of machine gun fire caused further casualties, and before the battalion could move on the Herefords had a hundred men down. Two platoons were despatched west to suppress fire from Cussy, which was to remain a problem on the right flank of the column.

At last, the advance could be resumed and the line of the road was reached. While the infantry trudged on, encountering yet more mines, A Squadron poured covering fire into hedgerows as C Squadron moved ahead, over a small stream to the high ground beyond. The column swung south-westwards, pivoting around the disputed hamlet of Cussy. About 13.45 hours, the Herefords put in their final assault on Cussy. At last, as the battalion was nearing exhaustion, the 4th Battalion, Kings Shropshire Light Infantry arrived on their left flank, leaving the Herefords to complete the suppression of Cussy and end their ‘Black Sunday’ regrouping around la Boisselière. The relieving KSLI were impressed by the Herefords’ losses.

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‘It was bad for morale... seeing rather mangled wounded coming back on jeeps.’18 And, ‘This was my first taste of battle, and passing the casualties, some wounded and some dead, of both Herefords and Germans, I began to wonder what chances I had.’19

Suddenly, opposition slackened as the attackers found themselves through the German Main Line of Resistance – and also, mercifully, through the worst of the minefields. The KSLI advanced astride a country road towards the next objective of la Boisselière with two companies ‘up’: B left and D right. The Fifes C Squadron tanks alternately gave covering fire and, where antipersonnel mines were suspected, led the way leaving tracks for columns of infantry to follow in single file. Still further along the road, as the Fifes sensed a breakthrough, A Squadron was unleashed.

‘We were told to move, and move fast. We called it “baffing”. No more creeping through hedges and grinding about in first gear, but doing what we had been trained to do: move. A Squadron went first, and I was leading Troop. It was a case of motoring flat out, 35 mph on the straight, for the faster you went the harder you were to hit. There were Germans all over the place, running and scampering. We fired wildly at them, overtook them and left them far behind. There were targets at every turn of the road. It was exhilarating.’20

One by one, Steel Brownlie’s troop was diminished. His own tank was hit and its turret welded immovable by molten metal ‘splash’. Still he continued the breakneck dash up the single road that constituted the Centre Line of the advance (in the British 1944 phonetic alphabet, the ‘Charlie Love’).

‘I was now a one-tank troop, but that made no difference – only one tank could go along narrow country roads, and there was no chance of mutual support. Round a bend, there was a six-barrelled Nebelwerfer sitting in the road. Buchanan hit it with an HE without even being given a fire order, and it went up in flames... He was a splendid gunner... We spotted some trenches a hundred yards away... With no turret traverse, it was necessary to manoeuvre the whole tank to get on to them, while staying outside Panzerfaust range. A few HE on delay fuse brought them out with their hands up.’

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Nebelwerfer crew in action in Normandy.

(By setting the fuse of a High Explosive round to maximum delay, it could be fired at the road surface ahead to create a dispersed ‘shotgun’ blast effect; or, as in this case, fired into trees whose foliage would trigger an ‘airburst’, raining shards downwards into entrenchments.)

The 159 Brigade headquarters had identified, ‘PWs taken coming from 752 GR of 326 Inf Div.’ Now, closer to the action, Major ‘Ned’ Thornburn commanding D Company, 4th KSLI realised,

‘Things began to look much better. The enemy we came upon were disorganised and scared – no fanatics from the Hitler Youth here... Our Fife and Forfar tanks were at our shoulders spreading destruction in all directions and within half a mile we knew we were on top.’

As Major Clayton observed, ‘The 326 Infantry Division, a mixed bag with a 70% foreign element, were only too pleased to pack it in... Every pair of foreign element trenches was covered by one German trench to the rear.’21

Of three prisoners he interrogated, first one then a second claimed to be Polish; the third remained silent as the first two spat at his feet!

At last light, the Shropshires settled into their newly-dug slit trenches between la Fouquerie and la Morichèse, while the accompanying Fifes ‘made harbour not at all displeased with [the] day’s performance.’22 The 326. Infanteriedivision front had been penetrated.

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Steel Brownlie’s troop of Shermans blazed a trail for the following Shropshires infantry.

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