PART TWO: ACROSS THE SOULEUVRE

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PART TWO: ACROSS THE SOULEUVRE

Chapter 5 MONDAY 31 JULY: DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT

Chapter 6 MONDAY 31 JULY: DICKIE’S BRIDGE

Chapter 7 MONDAY 31 JULY: AN ENEMY DIVIDED

Chapter 8 TUESDAY 1 AUGUST: LE BÉNY-BOCAGE

Chapter 9 MONDAY 31 JULY – TUESDAY 1 AUGUST: GUARDS GO SOUTH

Chapter 5

MONDAY 31 JULY: DAWN’S EARLY LIGHT

By midnight, 15th (Scottish) Division had staked their claim to both Hill 226 south of Cahagnes and Hill 309 above St-Martin-des-Besaces. 11th Armoured had advanced two-thirds of the way from Caumont to St-Martin and, ‘After a very tiring approach march and little sleep and then a hard day’s fighting, there was a natural tendency “to call it a day as soon as the sun went down.”’1 This was not to be.

INTO THE NIGHT

Prior to his two and a half years of imprisonment in Italy, General Richard O’Connor had gained a reputation in the desert for unexpected and daring plunges into enemy territory. So far in Normandy, his first two offensives had been terminated short of their objectives. Now, taking part in a third and conscious of a reputation to restore, O’Connor was determined to push on, undeterred by the slow progress of the two adjacent XXX Corps and US V Corps which threatened to expose both the flanks of his own VIII Corps advance. The hills taken by 6th Guards Tanks and 15th Scottish were satisfactory gains. Less satisfactory was the failure to secure St-Martin-des-Besaces, a key crossroads astride the major east-west artery of the RN 175 [modern D 675], and from which led the only highway south. The order was passed down to 11th Armoured Division. ‘Pip’ Roberts was firmly instructed to maintain the advance.

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Major General O’Connor, commander of VIII Corps, with Montgomery.

Meanwhile, at his Tac HQ just north of St-Jean-des-Essartiers, 29 Brigade commander Roscoe Harvey was similarly frustrated by the failure to reach St-Martin, little more than two miles ahead of his forward troops. Instead of ‘passing through’ the lead units in the classic manner, his reserve force of 3rd Royal Tanks and 8th Rifle Brigade had spent the afternoon unable to get forward. Denied use of the one direct road to St-Martin, these battalions had become stuck in massive cross-country traffic jams. Quite how far 8th RB reached by nightfall is uncertain.2But during the night, urged by the brigadier, their H Company roused a patrol to advance the rest of the way to St-Martin. These reached the outskirts of the small town to be met by enemy fire and in the words of the battalion War Diary, ‘It soon became evident that the opposition was too stiff for them, so they were left to give covering fire.’

Further east, although the decision had been taken to hold the 6th Guards’ Churchill tanks on hills 226 and 309, 15th Scottish did have one card to play. Detached from its unit, under command of the infantry division, B Squadron of 2nd Household Cavalry Regiment had struggled forward in the wake of the advance. It progressed in fits and starts around the flames still raging in the Lutaine Wood, across countless small streams, and through pockets of German infantry. The main St-Martin-des-Besaces road was reached at Hervieu around 03.00 hours. Lieutenant Kavanagh’s troop of cars led the way in the darkness past knocked-out Coldstream Churchills. Approaching St-Martin itself, the squadron major

‘told me to take two scout cars and see if there were any Germans in the village. Someone was in a hurry for news, so my orders were to drive through it – if we succeeded, then presumably it was empty. A large patrol of some Recce Regiment was to back us up, but it did not materialize. [the 15th Reconnaissance Regiment was supposed to be co-ordinating with the Guardsmen] In the middle of the place, however, a grenade exploded on Corporal Tutt’s car and something, I think a bazooka, blew the front wheels off my car.’3

St-Martin was not going to fall quickly.

The attention of the 11th Armoured Division commander turned to his 159 Brigade column. Pip Roberts summoned Brigadier Jack Churcher to get the 4th KSLI on their feet. ‘Churcher said this was impossible and, perhaps rather weakly, I said that the Corps Commander had ordered it and it had to be done.’4

The commander of 4th KSLI was next to appeal against the unwelcome order. Some time after midnight, Major Max Robinson recalled,

‘I am afraid that I “bellyached” to my Brigadier and he agreed with me that it was not a promising operation. The Divisional Commander got onto the Corps Commander, General O’Connor, who said quite firmly that it must be carried out. Furthermore, he said that from the information he had, he thought that the enemy had gone.’5

Where O’Connor received that ‘information’ is not at all clear. But fortunately, whether from intuition or simply wishful thinking, so far as the western sector of the battle was concerned his forecast was to prove accurate.

Robinson held his ‘O Group’ around 03.00 hours. Both A and D Company commanders now had their opportunity to declare the move ‘just not on!’ Captain Jack Clayton commanding B Company had similar reservations but agreed to lead the way, along with C Company. The order involved rousing the tired troops who had just settled into their slit trenches, and pushing forward five thousand yards in utter darkness. Which ‘only’ left the questions: how to find the way; how to exercise control; and what to do if the enemy was met. The solution chosen was unorthodox but expedient. The battalion would advance in a single column, along narrow country lanes that ran generally southwards, the leading sections armed with all the Sten guns that could be scrounged from the battalion. If any opposition was encountered, all were to blaze blindly into the darkness, ‘the odds being that the enemy would be as frightened as us.’6

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There was no opposition. Dawn found the battalion astride the parallel highway and rail line a mile west of the St-Martin road junction.7 Not for the last time in the course of BLUECOAT, an unexpected British advance led to unsuspecting German traffic blundering into ambush on a road thought to be safely behind their front line. After one half-track laden with grenadiers rattled past the unprepared lead platoon of Shropshires, Hawkins mines were laid across the road and a road block established. Early in the morning, the infantry were joined by troops of the Fifes’ tanks. The RN 175 between Villers-Bocage and Villedieu-les-Poêles, linking Panzergruppe West with 7. Armee, was cut.

ENTERING ST-MARTIN

Still, the British command was insistent on keeping up the pace of the advance. The left-hand column had been stalled north of St-Martin-des-Besaces. Barely had the tired Shropshires prepared their morning brew when orders came down the chain from division to brigade, and Major Max Robinson was insisting on moving out to take and clear the place. ‘And be quick about it!’

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B and C Companies of the 4th KSLI prepared to advance, astride the highway. The Fifes’ A Squadron was to support, two troops north of the road and two moving over to the south. The first tank to attempt the crossing was promptly knocked out by a gun firing from the town along the dead-straight road – the only clear line of sight in the dense terrain. The other tanks laid smoke before themselves crossing over. Don Bulley, the aggrieved troop commander who had lost his troop corporal’s tank, fired several shots up the street at the location of a suspected Panzer IV which he claimed to hit. Following in a C Squadron Sherman, co-driver John Thorpe was unsure of his temporary replacement tank commander. He recalled moving onto the road.

We emerge from the North at a place where there is a crest and are skylined, just sitting there – old Tommy must have gone blind, an antitank gun is firing along the road at us and its AP shots are striking and kicking up the tarmac just in front of us and are ricocheting over us – Christ! another tank comes onto the road ten yards in front and immediately goes up in flames, I feel I want to curl up and make myself as small as I can, we are not even firing our gun, Tommy must be mesmerised, why don’t we do something or move? Phoo! At last we continue and move off the highway... we reach St Martin des Besaces where trees have been felled across the road – infantry mop up.’8

For the tanks attempting to break into the small town, ‘The going through the back gardens was almost impossible owing to high banks, trees, out-houses and the like, and progress was slow.’

Likewise, in the smoke and confusion the two infantry companies were only able to monitor each other’s slow progress by the sound of their fire. A solitary Churchill AVRE9 appeared, commanded by a lost officer of Royal Engineers, and bringing with it the promise of its petard mortar’s short-range demolition charges.

‘But unfortunately his gun did not work, so he motored away, looking depressed.’ [Whereupon A Squadron’s Steel Brownlie again took the lead.] ‘As we were getting nowhere, I left the gardens and motored up the main street, hoping that Don had indeed hit the Mark IV, as he had reported. All was quiet, but at the X-roads the muzzle of a Panzerschreck appeared round the corner at the bottom of a wall. Buchanan hit it with two HE, and we later found two bodies.’

At the crossroads in the centre of St Martin,

‘I cautiously turned right, and saw two things. One was a naked female standing in the middle of the street: a tailor’s dummy set up by a German with a sense of humour. The other was the broken track of a Mark IV, and skid marks showing that the tank itself had been towed away.10

By 11.00 hours, St-Martin-des-Besaces was secured. The Fifes pulled back to harbour, Steel Brownlie’s crew resting while his battered Sherman was repaired. The tired Shropshires were relieved by elements of 15th Scottish, and in a nearby field looked forward to taking their own long awaited rest. Once again, this was not to be.

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