Chapter 7

MONDAY 31 JULY: AN ENEMY DIVIDED

Following his 01.00 hours rendezvous with Straube at LXXIV Korps, Edgar Feuchtinger set off to find the headquarters of 326. Infanteriedivision. A sleepless night awaited the general as he searched the gloomy countryside, likewise his own 21. Panzerdivision as it hurried through the night to the threatened sector.

images

General Edgar Feuchtinger, 21. Panzerdivision.

ORDERS

Not until dawn on 31 July was Feuchtinger united with Drabich-Waechter. The news he received was worse than expected. Contrary to General Straube’s briefing, the infantry division’s front had completely collapsed. In the chaos, 326. Division had been unable to convey to its parent corps the news that St-Martin was closely invested and about to fall. The only unexpected glimmer of hope was that small numbers of Panzer IV belonging to 2. Panzerdivision remained in (or had returned to) the battle area, shoring-up what remained of the infantry.1 Feuchtinger was appalled by the gap that would have to be filled by his own 21. Panzer: from the heights of the Bois du Homme along the Souleuvre to le Bény-Bocage and the inter-corps boundary beyond. The enemy strength seemed to him too great to overcome. He set aside as impractical Straube’s orders for an aggressive counterstroke. As 21. Panzer arrived in the sector, its elements would simply move into blocking positions to hinder any further British advances.

As for Drabich-Waechter, the precise details of his moves during the coming day are unclear. What is known is that following his meeting with Feuchtinger, he managed later in the day to contact Straube, whereupon he was left in no doubt as to the corps commander’s requirement for urgent offensive action. Straube was convinced that only a violent rebuff would give the British pause: making them hesitate if not actually withdraw. Though technically now subordinated to Feuchtinger, Drabich-Waechter assumed command of the LXXIV Korps reserve: his own 326. Füsilierbataillon, supported by detachments of Jagdpanther and elements of the 21. Panzerdivision reconnaissance battalion. Under his personal supervision, this force struck the XXX Corps front between St-Pierre-du-Fresne and Benneville (along the RN 175 Villers-Bocage highway, on the north-eastern flanks of the Bois du Homme massif). With the supporting High Explosive fire of the near-impregnable Jagdpanther, the infantry made good progress against the British until stopped dead by artillery and air attack. Among the fallen lay Drabich-Waechter, suffering a soldier’s death while directing the attack.

images

The 4th Coldstream supported the 2nd Glasgow Highlanders on Hill 309. The 3rd Scots Guards and the 2nd Argylls occupied 226.

Meanwhile, newly-arriving elements of 21. Panzerdivision attempted to shore-up the front west of the Bois du Homme (arriving, as has been shown, just too late at the Souleuvre bridge and merely picketing outposts on the summit of Hill 205 and along the Bény-Bocage road). This was not what the corps commander had required. Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger had been ordered to use his 21. Panzerdivision to support Drabich-Waechter’s counter attacks through the Bois du Homme, intended to retake Hill 309. Although his division was in contact with the enemy on many points from Dickie’s Bridge to the Bois du Homme, Feuchtinger had not attacked anywhere. Furious, LXXIV Korps commander Erich Straube visited Feuchtinger’s battle headquarters late on 31 July to insist on a morning counter-attack. Yet midnight found Feuchtinger back at Straube’s headquarters, arguing the futility of offensive action. It was pointless, he maintained, now that the British had broken through and crossed the Souleuvre. Only under protest and threatened with court martial did Feuchtinger agree to carry out the attack, later recalling, ‘As I could not stop this senseless attack, I considered it more in the interest of my men to obey.’2

images

Multiple mortar crew, 21. Panzerdivision in action in Normandy.

21. PANZERDIVISION

Feuchtinger’s 21. Panzerdivision inherited the mantle of its namesake which had fought under Rommel in the desert and gained a reputation for endurance and daring. In fact, the original 21st had virtually disappeared when the desert army surrendered at Tunis in February 1943. The division was recreated from scratch in May of that year, and like many new German divisions raised at that time had to scrounge and extemporize the equipment it needed to become battleworthy. The revival of such a famous name did not go unnoticed by the Allies: ULTRA decrypts allowed the Supreme Command to follow the progress of the division from Germany to Brittany and on to the Caen sector. On 6 June, elements of the division guarding the Orne River and Canal bridges north of Caen had been the first German ground troops to engage Allied airborne forces on D-Day. But like the British ‘Desert Rats’ that fought in Normandy, 21. Panzerdivision never quite lived up to the exalted reputation of its desert predecessors. Feuchtinger himself did not command the respect of his officers. He had neither the charisma nor the drive of a successful armour leader. His division’s slow response to the events of 6 June was partially due to his typical absence from the front. (In fact he was passing the night in Paris with a black showgirl.) Following a succession of disobediences, he was much later to be relieved and court martialled.

Throughout the fighting around Caen, members of 12. SS-Panzerdivision had been highly critical of their neighbours, accusing 21. Panzer of being unwilling to press home its attacks with the same spirit and commitment as the Hitler Youth division. The judgement was a harsh one: few divisions in 1944 could stand comparison with 12. SS-Panzer. In the final analysis, 21. Panzerdivision had been fighting since 6 June and was tired. A staff officer, Kapitän Eberhard Wagemann reflected that even before the invasion, ‘We were conscious that neither our men nor our tanks were good enough.’ This state of affairs was not to improve. The division remained in the line as its equipment and manpower strength were worn down. Towards the end of July, the 16. Luftwaffenfelddivision (air force men converted to infantry for want of serviceable aircraft) had been disbanded following its heavy losses during the GOODWOOD battle. Two thousand of these men were forwarded to 21. Panzer. Grenadiers these were not. Lacking equipment, training, and leadership, their only experience of battle had been catastrophic defeat. But they would of necessity be called upon to play their part in the next day’s counter-attack.

A small but important part of the offensive capability remaining to 21. Panzer was an attached unit: 3. Kompanie of schwere Panzer-Abteilung 503 with its complement of thirteen operational Königstiger. At sixty-nine tons, this ‘King Tiger’ was by a considerable margin the heaviest battle tank of the Second World War. It carried the same 8.8cm gun as the Jagdpanther, but in a fast-rotating turret. Its frontal armour was up to 185mm thick – even more than that of the Jagdpanther. The massive tank was not invulnerable: in its first appearance on any battlefield, in a failed counter-attack against the British on 18 July, two had been cleanly penetrated by flank hits; one other was immobilized; while a fourth later succumbed to ‘friendly fire’, was rammed by a Sherman, and was abandoned before being finished off by yet another British tank.3Nevertheless, many more Königstiger in Normandy were to be abandoned by their crews after mechanical breakdown than were lost to antitank fire.

images

Königstiger: the ‘Porsche’ turret with its distinctive curved front was more commonly found in Normandy.

15TH SCOTTISH

At the dawn of 31 July, the Glasgow Highlanders on Hill 309 and the Argylls on 226 found themselves at the forefront of what the divisional history called ‘a pretty involved situation... Indeed the troops on Quarry Hill had the enemy east, west, north, and south of them, for German S.P. guns were now active in La Ferriere directly in their rear, [sic, actually the area mentioned was between rather than behind the two occupied hills, though a threat nonetheless] and the enemy were also in strength in St Martin.’4 After a full month of combat experience, the Jocks were all too well aware of the likelihood of violent German counterattacks against newly-seized positions. But the situation would presently be eased.

The Churchill tanks that had led the way the day before broke leaguer at first light to resume their support of the infantry holding the two hills: the Coldstream returning to the top of 309; the remaining Scots Guards to 226. For both groups, the day was to prove relatively calm. The Argylls and Scots Guards maintained their wary watch: ‘Fighting continues around & to our rear on 43 Div front. But we were left in peace.’5 While the Scots Guards recovered from the shock of the previous evening, the highlight of the Argylls’ day was the return of their Colonel Tweedie, released from hospital to relieve Major Kenneth who had so successfully led the battalion throughout the previous days. To the Argylls’ rear, their fellow battalions of 227 Highland Brigade maintained their watch: the 2nd Gordons around the Lutaine and the 10th HLI dug in around Hervieu. On 309, the Coldstream tanks were with great difficulty refuelled and rearmed by half-tracks struggling up ‘their’ hill. And 46 Highland Brigade reinforced the Glasgow Highlanders with the 7th Seaforth; while the 9th Cameronians waiting to the north had a succession of orders cancelled until at last being called upon to send D Company into St-Martin to relieve elements of 11th Armoured Division. The rest of the battalion concentrated just north-west of Quarry Hill, ready to counter-attack any enemy break-in there.

images

images

In division reserve was 44 Lowland Brigade, passing the day ‘filling holes into which enemy parties were infiltrating.’6 Late in the afternoon, the brigade was ordered to fill the dangerous gap between the bulwarks of 309 and 226. About 18.45 hours, the Royal Scots advanced towards the Bois du Homme massif, supported by a squadron of the Grenadier Guards’ Churchills. The combined force ran the gauntlet both of air attack by British Typhoons, against which ‘the placing of yellow recognition signals provided no security’, and of concentrations of XXX Corps artillery, mostly smoke but intermixed with some High Explosive. All in all, ‘it was fortunate that there was only slight opposition, and the objective was safely obtained.’7 The Grenadiers’ ingratitude was misplaced. Much of the artillery had indeed fallen on the forward German lines. As to the fighter-bombers, their task was frustrated by the closeness of friend and enemy amid the dense terrain, and by effective German anti-aircraft fire. Nevertheless, they accounted for many enemy tanks which might otherwise have posed a serious threat.

With the principal enemy offensive actions being directed against 43rd Division to the east, the battalions of 15th Scottish had found themselves under relatively little pressure, while prisoners of war including numerous deserters continued to stream back. As 11th Armoured Division also found,

‘The confusion into which the enemy’s forces had been thrown was clearly demonstrated by the great variety of formations from which today’s prisoners were taken and the purely local and unco-ordinated character of his resistance. His reaction to the breaching of his position was unprecedentedly slow.’8

At a higher level still, VIII Corps was made aware of

‘the movement on a large scale, of [enemy] armour westwards from Thury Harcourt towards the Corps front, and it remained to be seen which of the Panzer Divisions east of the river had been given the doubtful honour of meeting the new British thrust.’9

Before the day was out, the arrival of 21. Panzerdivision was confirmed, some of its captured members confidently predicting that more formations would follow in their wake.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at admin@erenow.org. Thank you!