Chapter 4


In a report to Berlin on 29 July, Generalleutnant Hans Speidel, Chief of Staff first to Rommel and now to von Kluge, had summed up the desperate tactics required in Normandy. In his words, Heeresgruppe B (Army Group B) would ‘endeavour to prevent a break-through by recklessly exposing the fronts which are not being attacked.’1 A day later, the price of that recklessness was being violently exacted.


On the arrival of 326. Infanteriedivision, the corps commander had briefed Drabich-Waechter on the ground. From the forward outposts at the foot of the Caumont ridge all the way back to the main defence line, the gently rolling country appeared ideal for defence. Of all the routes that radiated out from Caumont, only two minor roads would benefit an enemy: running respectively south-east to Cahagnes and south-west towards St-Martin-des-Besaces. These simple thoroughfares threaded through small villages, each one a bastion of stone defences. The surrounding farmland was subdivided into small pastures and apple orchards, each girt with earth banks and sturdy ancient hedgerows. Close to the front, open spaces and dirt tracks were seeded with mines, both antitank and anti-personnel; in patches of woodland were concealed wire entanglements covered by entrenched fire positions.

But the key to the sector lay further back. General der Infanterie Erich Straube drew attention to the prominent Hill 309, looming to the east of St-Martin-des-Besaces. A full eight kilometres due south of the Caumont ridge, the hill offered clear vistas over the intervening countryside. This, Straube stressed, was the vital point that must not fall to the enemy. Drabich-Waechter noted that the landmark was shielded by defensible terrain from an enemy front that had hitherto been quiescent. Even in the absence of heavyweight antitank support, the task had appeared manageable.

Now, when the storm broke early on 30 July, 326. Infanteriedivision headquarters was forced by British bombing raids to displace from le Bressis, four kilometres south of St-Martin, to la Fausillière, an eastward march of eight kilometres. With communications disrupted by the move, which would not be compete before evening, the division was for some time unaware of the fall of Hill 309 and its easterly neighbour Hill 226. Straube’s corps headquarters took longer still to recognise that his western flank from Caumont to the inter-army boundary was collapsing. Though the entire LXXIV Korps front had erupted in fire, early indications were that the line was holding along its length. Accordingly, the meagre reserves immediately at Straube’s disposal had been fed into the centre of the corps sector. These reserves consisted principally of a handful of infantry and a single antitank battalion of two dozen guns. Yet this small force was capable of exerting an influence over the battlefield out of all proportion to its numbers.

Schwere Panzerjäger-Abteilung 654 had long years of combat experience, latterly in the bitter armoured battles of the eastern front. But the battalion had left its armour behind in Russia and arrived in France with little matériel of war. Motor vehicles were few, and fuel so short that driver training and soldiers’ leave had to be combined with routine supply journeys. Such was the supply situation that company commanders were exhorted to concern themselves with ‘everything from the button on a pair of trousers to a tank’.2 Only in May were the first of the new self-propelled guns received and not until late June was the battalion up to strength: with twenty-five Jagdpanther; three Panther command tanks; and one Bergepanther recovery vehicle (an essential asset given the rate of breakdowns routinely experienced).


Bergepanther recovery vehicle: sturdy and essential.

The Jagdpanther3 was a formidable beast. Designed to engage heavy Russian tanks at long range, its 8.8cm Pak 43/3 L71 was almost absurdly over-powerful for the Allied armour it was to engage in the west. Its well sloped 8cm frontal armour was proof against most of the British ordnance that it was likely to encounter. Its high profile was perhaps less than ideal for a tank destroyer; but insofar as the Jagdpanther had an Achilles heel, that was its mechanical reliability. On first delivery, many of the guns of the 654. Abteilung were found to be unserviceable, and through July it was normal to find over half of the twenty-five Jagdpanther undergoing short-term repair in the battalion workshops.

On 30 July, the number undergoing repair work had been reduced to five, and early warning of an imminent British offensive led to two of these being hastily readied for action. Through the early hours, as the LXXIV Korps front was hammered by 50th (Northumbrian) Division from Orbois to St-Germain-d’Ectot (six kilometres north of Villers-Bocage) and by 43rd (Wessex) around Briquessard, small parties of Jagdpanther were despatched to deal with enemy incursions. Denied by the close Normandy terrain the long range for which they were best suited, these detachments nevertheless struck out aggressively, meeting and defeating British tanks. On the LXXIV Korps right flank, Leutnant Heyn’s troop of Jagdpanther supported 986. Infanterieregiment around Montsen-Bessin (six kilometres north-east of Villers-Bocage) where Sherman and Churchill tanks were threatening to penetrate the main defence line.


Jagdpanther undergoing tests in Germany.

‘The morning fog lifted and finally we could make out three enemy tanks in a patch of woods... The range was 800 metres; an armour-piercing round was loaded. I adjusted my aim and fired. The round left the barrel with a roar. The smoke blocked my view. Long seconds of expectation. A miss! The second shot was a hit. Clouds of smoke rose from the enemy tank. One more round and it finally caught fire. The ammunition went up. I quickly turned my attention to the second tank, which was already turning its gun in our direction. Our reverse-slope position gave us the advantage. The most that was exposed was our gun barrel. Once again a round raced toward the enemy. Target! We celebrated. Another round followed immediately and the enemy tank burst into flames. We fired at the third tank but could not tell if we hit it. The English artillery began pounding the area with barrage fire and it was time for us to disappear.’4


LXXIV Korps was hammered by multiple British Divisions.

Meanwhile, the 654. Abteilung headquarters gathered its uncommitted strength and advanced towards the centre of the corps front, between Amayé-sur-Seulles and Villers-Bocage. Only late in the afternoon came the realisation that while the threat to the LXXIV Korps right and centre had been contained, there was a crisis on the left. The corps reserves were redirected. Leaving just five of the precious Jagdpanther with 276. Division, the remainder along with the reserve 326. Füsilierbataillon (infantry in corps reserve where they had hastily arranged a degree of co-ordination with the tank destroyers) were directed westward.


Around 18.30 hours, the two forward squadrons of 3rd Scots Guards were widely dispersed along the gently sloping, whaleback crest of Hill 226. Their relaxation was rudely shattered by a heavy artillery ‘stonk’, catching Guardsmen out of their tanks while their officers had gathered for an ‘O Group’ briefing. One tank was hit twice in succession, its commander Captain Beeson dying as he tried to aid his wounded co-driver. In the Argylls’ slit trenches and the Guards’ Churchill tanks, the defenders of Hill 226 faced south towards the dominating wooded ridge of the Bois du Homme, preparing to receive a counter-attack.

Both the form and the direction of the attack were unexpected. Within moments, all three Churchill tanks of Lieutenant Cunningham’s troop, the easternmost on the hill, were destroyed, the lieutenant severely wounded. From the north-east of the hill, there emerged two massive German self-propelled antitank guns. The forty-five ton vehicle was propelled by a 23 litre Maybach engine delivering 700 brake horsepower. The Churchills were a similar weight but by contrast had a Bedford lorry’s engine developing 350 horsepower. Unsurprisingly, the Jagdpanther’s maximum speed of twenty-eight miles per hour was twice the Churchill’s. As the two moved briskly forward, a third in an overwatch position gave covering fire.

A skilled Panzerjäger commander chose his positions and sited his guns before combat. Leutnant Scheiber had been ordered to take his platoon (the 1. Zug of 3. Kompanie) of three Jagdpanther forward to support the hard-pressed infantry.5 Stopping in a sunken road, Scheiber had dismounted to reconnoitre ahead with one of his commanders. Unteroffizier Richarz recalls,

‘Twenty minutes passed, then he returned, smiling. They had counted eight enemy tanks. The engines roared and our tank destroyers rumbled forward through shell craters and hedges... The Tommies sat on and beside the tanks, smoking, as if they were at a training area.’

Keeping their thick frontal armour faced towards the enemy, all three Jagdpanther came at the British, alternately moving and firing, destroying a Scots Guards Churchill with almost every round fired.


‘We were jubilant; we had knocked out the first enemy tank in the company. Round after round left the barrel. One after another they went up in flames. By this time the Tommies in one tank were in a panic. They abandoned their vehicle and ran into some vegetation. We fired at them with high-explosive rounds and machine guns. Hunting fever had gripped all of us.’

The Scots Guards arrived in France confident in the thick armour of their heavy infantry tanks, but confidence soon evaporated as they visited a ‘tank graveyard’ and witnessed the damage a German 7.5cm antitank gun could inflict, even on a Churchill. And the impact of a round from an 8.8cm gun was even more catastrophic. No less daunting was the realization of what happened inside a Churchill when it was hit and burned. Following consultation with 31 and 34 (Churchill) Tank Brigades, feverish attempts were made to weld spare track links onto turrets and hulls. Official reports dismissed this as futile or worse, leading only to the further overloading of the heavy Churchill tanks. In the case of the lighter Sherman tanks, there is evidence that extra panels of ‘appliqué armour’, welded opposite the ammunition racks, were successfully used as aiming points by German gunners. But the practice was allowed to continue as it might give the confidence of the British tank crews some small boost. This was sorely needed. Tank crews lived in fear of German ‘88s’. Of the Normandy campaign, the 6th Guards Tank Brigade history records,

‘Every member of the Brigade knew that his passport to heaven was engraved with a large 88 and that round every corner and over every hill it might be handed to him by a gunner of the German Army.’6

A Churchill had no realistic chance of defeating the frontal armour of a Jagdpanther. Two-thirds of the Scots Guards’ Mark IV Churchills had been converted from 6-pounder to 75mm guns, which had somewhat reduced armour penetrating capability and would do scant damage to the front of a Jagdpanther.7 More experienced units in Normandy had already seen the need to set aside the conversion kits and to retain a number of 6-pounder Churchills to lead the way in action, ideally with one of the newly-issued APDS (armour-piercing, discarding-sabot) rounds ‘up the spout’. But such precautions were irrelevant where the frontal armour of a Jagdpanther was concerned. As other Churchill units were to discover in the days to come, even 6-pounder ‘sabot’ rounds bounced off the glacis plate of a Jagdpanther ‘like ping-pong balls’. Eventually, 6th Guards Tanks would follow the example of other Churchill-equipped brigades and form close working relationships with self-propelled M10 antitank batteries with their 17-pounder guns. But on the early evening of 30 July, the assigned battery of the VIII Corps antitank regiment was far behind, struggling to get ‘forward as fast as we could, which was something in the nature of one mile per hour.’8


The Germans rolled past the Scots Guards, leaving a trail of wrecked Churchill tanks. Captain William Whitelaw, commanding S Squadron, was in his scout car back with his reserve troop when


‘the mortaring and shelling on the hill suddenly intensified. Then I saw the left hand tank of my left forward troop go up in flames closely followed by the other two. Immediately I started to return to the hill. As I was driving up the field I saw all three tanks of my Left flank troop go up in flames, and as I approached the top of the hill, I saw a tank moving from Right to Left in front of me. Suddenly it appeared to me (wearing a headset) as if the turret of this tank had been quietly lifted off and put down on the ground some yards away. It was only when I saw the flames that I realised that this tank had in fact exploded.. all six tanks in my two Left hand troops together with the Battalion Second-in-Command’s tank had all been knocked out in... a little over a minute.’9

A German commander was observed standing in his hatch, laughing at the scene and giving a mock salute as the three monsters roared off the hill.

One observer was critical of the German tactics. Charles Farrell, 2IC of Left Flank Squadron in his close-support Churchill, remains convinced that the German commander ‘threw away a dominating fire position by his ill-advised charge’. He maintained that

‘Had they been better trained and better commanded they would have held their position at the edge of the wood and engaged Right Flank Squadron with what might well have been similar devastating results’.10

Still, from the German perspective, Leutnant Scheiber was held up as an example of decisive leadership, praised for such unorthodox practices as leading his guns into action on a motor-cycle, and even at times taking over the gunner’s position within his own vehicle. The German army had different views about inspirational leadership.11

With the Argylls’ own 6-pounder antitank guns and attached Royal Artillery 17-pounders (of 91st Antitank Regiment – the 5th Argylls!) still struggling forward, infantry commander John Kenneth recalled that ‘It proved to be an armour show and there was little that the infantry could do about it.’ Ron Lomas’ Loyd Carrier with its 6-pounder gun arrived in Les Loges and was waiting for orders at the corner of a field, when along the hedgerow approached a Guardsman, bareheaded and shocked. ‘He was on his hands and knees; he wouldn’t get up for anything. He shouted to us, “Don’t go up there, it’s murder!” ’ Before the scene was obscured by a British smoke barrage, whose shells fell perilously close to the antitank guns’ ammunition carriers, some of the men claimed to have spotted German vehicles withdrawing.

After dark, the tanks fell back from the hill to a ‘Forward Rally’ on the eastern edge of les Loges. A hot meal was prepared but most men were too tired to eat. The Padre’s party did the rounds of the wrecked tanks. Eleven Churchills had been knocked out, ten of S Squadron plus the tank of the regimental 2IC, Major Cuthbert, whose destruction Captain Whitelaw had witnessed.12 Its thickest frontal armour had been cleanly penetrated and its turret torn off in the ensuing explosion. So violent was the conflagration that the men’s identity discs could not be found and in consequence the crew had to be reported ‘Missing (Believed Killed)’, a fate befalling two of the four officers and thirteen of the thirty-nine Other Ranks lost to the Scots Guards on 30 July.

A month later, a party of 3rd Scots Guards officers returned to the scene to try to reconstruct the action. They took some comfort from the discovery, a mile to the south, of Scheiber’s own Jagdpanther 311, blown up by its crew after suffering transmission breakdown. Another Jagdpanther was found, hauled as far as St-Martin-des-Besaces railway station by the 6th Guards Brigade Heavy Recovery Section. This was found to have partially repaired suspension damage, which the battalion attributed to 75mm HE hits to its tracks claimed by the tank of Lieutenant Bankes as the enemy moved off the hill on 30 July.13 But that night on Hill 226, even this small consolation was lacking. The Left Flank 2IC, Captain Charles Farrell went forward with his codriver to seek the Jagdpanther. They walked forward half a mile but, ‘finding nothing – not even tank tracks – returned to the Squadron.’14


As the day wore on and LXXIV Korps headquarters became aware of the extent of the crisis on their left flank, urgent calls for a counterstrike had been passed up the line. At Panzergruppe West, Eberbach had few options. He had only recently detached 2. and 116. Panzerdivisionen to move west to the American sector; and he was determined to retain the powerful II. SS-Panzerkorps in place to oppose renewed British assaults on the Orne River sector. Which only left 21. Panzerdivision.

When relieved on 27 July by 272. Infanteriedivision, 21. Panzer had endured seven long weeks of front-line combat. Even before the shock of the GOODWOOD offensive, the division’s manpower and matériel were tired and depleted. By the time Operation GOODWOOD was closed down, the formation was in far worse shape. The absorption of the remnants of 16. Luftwaffenfelddivision (an infantry unit formed of redundant air force personnel and shattered in the course of 18 and 19 July) was small recompense. Though numbering up to 1,500 men, these drafts would require time and training if ever they were to gain any proficiency as grenadiers. Three days out of the line in the Forêt de Cinglais had been little enough time for the division to assimilate newcomers.

When the call back to action came, Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s response was to form a battlegroup of the most effective mobile elements of his division. Even before the battering it had taken during GOODWOOD, the division’s tank regiment had only one of its two battalions present in Normandy. Fortunately, sufficient scarce replacement tanks were granted to allow the single battalion of 22. Panzerregiment to march with forty-one Panzer IV. Led by the experienced and accomplished Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronikowski, the tanks moved west across the Orne River accompanied by the division’s single remaining motorized (and partially armoured) infantry battalion (I./Panzergrenadierregiment 192), a company of combat engineers (1./Panzerpionierbataillon 220), and the division’s two self-propelled artillery batteries.

Heartened by the promised arrival of Kampfgruppe von Oppeln, LXXIV Korps commander Erich Straube felt confident in dismissing the concerns of the neighbouring corps. Across the inter-army boundary, the 9. Fallschirmjägerregiment (parachutists in name only, but experienced infantrymen nonetheless) had reported with dismay the apparent collapse in panic of the adjacent ‘Ost’ battalion of 326. Infanteriedivision. The Fallschirm-Korps commander General der Fallschirmtruppen Eugen Meindl was likewise highly experienced, and not at all satisfied by Straube’s assurances.

‘It was an important matter for me - I insisted – not to lose contact with my neighbour on my right... otherwise the II. Parachute Corps would soon be surrounded from two sides and after what I’d seen I hadn’t much faith in the tanks.’15

But his appeals to higher authority were fruitless. Von Kluge had previously scorned Meindl’s complaints about his neighbours, telling him to mind his own business and not cast furtive glances to his flanks. And on 30 July, von Kluge’s gaze was drawn to events further west, where the American Operation COBRA was threatening to penetrate the German 7. Armee.

Attempting to liaise with his opposite number across the corps/army boundary, Meindl failed to reach the corps commander and instead expressed his doubts about 326. Infanteriedivision to Straube’s chief-of-staff, Zoeller:

‘it seemed to me that insufficient preparations had been made for the possibility of an enemy breakthrough... it appeared to me that the enemy was thinking of making an attack very soon.’

To Meindl’s disgust, Zoeller immediately passed the comments up the line to OB West, and before ten minutes had passed von Kluge cleared the telephone line for a blitz call reprimanding the parachute general for his defeatism. Meindl was unrepentant. ‘I was not going to take that from anybody... not even a demigod.’16

Meanwhile, the relieving Kampfgruppe was slowed by air attack and lack of good roads, making slow progress towards the Coulvain sector where it was to be deployed (south-west of Villers-Bocage along the highway to Vire). As the evening wore on, apprehension grew at Straube’s headquarters. His renewed pleas to his Panzergruppe West registered with Eberbach, who telephoned Feuchtinger at 22.00 hours with the order to move west with his entire 21. Panzerdivision. Three hours later, Feuchtinger arrived at Straube’s headquarters, where Straube ‘tried to put me in the picture but didn’t seem to understand what was happening.’17 As his advanced Kampfgruppe entered the combat area and the rest of his division filled the roads from Cinglais, Feuchtinger set off in search of Drabich-Waechter.

Whether influenced by professional pride or by encouraged by the imminent arrival of 21. Panzerdivision, Straube continued to deny Meindl’s claims that a fissure was opening along the German inter-corps (and inter-army) boundary. Straube insisted that elements of his corps were still holding out north of St-Martin-des-Besaces. And there were indeed some surviving pockets of the 326. Division in that sector. But Meindl remained unconvinced. He ordered his paratroop infantry to pull back a few kilometres from what he regarded as a dangerously exposed right flank.


LXXIV Korps out of touch with reality.

A crisis was now approaching, largely unseen. As tired German staff officers worked to midnight and beyond to oppose the unforeseen offensive with inadequate reserves, mistakes were made. A telephone network strained to near breaking point did not help matters. Nor did last-minute changes to the command structure. Feuchtinger now believed himself to be in charge of the whole sector, taking whatever was left of 326. Infanteriedivision under his authority (if only he could locate its headquarters). At corps level, Straube was willing to acquiesce in that delegation. At army level, Eberbach trusted that his commitment of 21. Panzerdivision in its entirety would permit an effective counter-attack to clear up the situation. Still higher up the command chain, von Kluge was disturbed at rumours of an American breakthrough reaching Avranches and in no mood to be distracted by squabbles between divisional commanders on the inter-army boundary.

In anticipation of the intended counter-attack by Feuchtinger’s force, scheduled for the following day, LXXIV Korps was authorized to go firm on a new, withdrawn front line: running from St-Vaast-sur-Seulles (eight kilometres north of Villers-Bocage) westward through Orbois, Anctoville, and Cahagnes, to Dampierre, four kilometres north-west of St-Martin-des-Besaces. But this line on the situation map at Panzergruppe West was already out of touch with reality. Though acknowledging that much ground had been lost since that morning, the western end of the line, from Cahagnes to Dampierre, was now at best contested territory. Any German resistance in that area was fragmentary. By daybreak, leading elements of VIII Corps would have penetrated some distance south of the supposed new front. Worse still, Meindl’s withdrawn paratroopers understood the inter-army boundary to be the line of the Vire River, running south from Cauville, on the main road due west of St-Martin-des-Besaces. Unappreciated by headquarters at army, corps, or divisional level, a yawning and mostly undefended gap had opened up between 7. Armeeand Panzergruppe West.

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