Chapter 8


The third day of the operation found both sides off balance. The German defenders were still reeling in some disarray. VIII Corps had penetrated beyond expectations, but was consequently exposed on both flanks: by the failure of the XXX Corps advance on the left, and the US V Corps held up west of Petit Aunay on the right.


At the end of a momentous day in the history of the Household Cavalry, the widely dispersed sabre squadrons had looked forward to their respite after a continuous twenty-four hours in action. D Squadron disengaged from la Ferrière-Harang, its troops making their way against the southerly flow of traffic all the way back past St-Martin to their squadron leaguer near Dampierre. The cars motored in, troop-by-troop. Fitters brooded over the vehicles; crews lit stoves for a ‘brew’; the cars’ fuel tanks were topped up ready for the morrow. Then the squadron commander was called to the radio. ‘Sunray’1 was on his way with orders. No one was to move.

The colonel’s car burst into the squadron harbour.


Vire looked very far away.

‘The Colonel exuded an almost diabolic optimism. We, the Regiment, had “done extremely well”; the Corps Commander was “delighted,” and he himself was “delighted”. Then... he announced that we were about to have the chance of doing even better within the next twelve hours.’

D Squadron being nearest to the bridge would have to forgo their rightful turn off-duty. As the colonel indicated the new objective on a huge map board, the D Squadron Rear-Link officer reflected that, ‘to me, Vire, even on the smallest scale map, looked very far away.’ He turned to the regimental IO [Intelligence Officer] in hopes of being given encouraging information about the enemy’s weakness. ‘But all Lieutenant Haskard said to me that evening was, “I don’t envy you at all,” which, as the Colonel was still within earshot, was even more muttered than usual.’2

Starting their engines, the armoured cars resumed their weary journey, all lights switched off. The way through St-Martin-des-Besaces was lit by smouldering buildings; retracing their route westward out of the town, the cars passed the wreck of the anti-aircraft battery that had earlier confronted Powle’s half-troop, now illuminated by a blazing hayrick. Motoring through the forest and passing through la Ferrière, optimistic radio calls were made in hopes of contacting Lieutenant Bethell’s lost troop. They went unanswered. The road down to the bridge was congested with American infantry, both on foot and lorried, who had unwittingly taken a wrong turning. And even on arrival at the bridge, the leading cars were held up by the vehicles of 11th Armoured Division, crammed into the small bridgehead.


Captain Watehouse’s journey – and rapid return – along the north bank.

With the road to le Bény-Bocage blocked by traffic, Captain Waterhouse (2IC of D Squadron) was sent off west in a scout car driven by Trooper Strange, towards the bridge on the main St-Lô highway where they were to liaise with Americans of the 19th Division. Their road meandered along the northern bank of the river through the steep sided gorge of the Souleuvre, the south bank dominated by the slopes of Hill 204. Arriving at a small bridge, Waterhouse had his driver slow down while he looked for an American headquarters. Here, the ‘Americans’ were acting somewhat oddly. When it dawned on the officer that they were not Americans at all, his driver responded in haste, and in his haste stalled the engine. Strange tried again, and before the German paratroopers could react proceeded to demonstrate the sprightly reverse for which the Daimler Dingo was justly renowned. Above on 204, the guns of Fallschirm-Artillerie-Regiment 12 were preoccupied with covering the withdrawal of Meindl’s infantry regiments from the north; the bridge guards were too surprised to react to the unexpected arrival in their rear. On their return, Waterhouse and Strange were grateful for a breakfast of biscuits and beans, rather than German black bread and cabbage soup.

By 10.00 hours, the leading cars were through the jams and pushing east, at last ahead of their countrymen, the troops detouring through Carville to bypass le Bény-Bocage and fanning out in all directions. Troops penetrated as far to the east as Presles; others took the south-westerly track from Carville towards Étouvy. Speed and surprise preserved many a car from enemy fire. Some encountered opposition and had to fight; others were shot up by a flight of Lockheed Lightning fighter-bombers: quantities of yellow smoke were put up but the recognition signal was not observed. The general feeling of the patrols was that the enemy was in a state of confusion, that the roads north of Vire were only lightly held, and that a breakthrough was on the cards – if only infantry and tanks could be got forward.


Pip Roberts later recorded of 1 August that, ‘We, as a division, had to push on to the south but, of course, getting the whole division forward was a comparatively slow process.’3 For all General O’Connor’s enthusiastic orders of the previous afternoon, this was going to be a day of consolidation and cautious advance. In spite of his reputation as a dashing and energetic young armour leader, Pip Roberts was not reckless. As 1 August dawned, his concerns extended to the front, the flanks, and the rear of his division. To the north of the little Souleuvre bridge, elements of his division began the day dispersed around the single country road on which all would depend for both the assembly of the division and its subsequent logistic support. (Note that a British armoured division on the move was reckoned to fill ten miles of good quality highway.) To the west, the extent of the Americans’ progress against Meindl’s Fallschirmjäger, and hence the security of that vital road, remained in doubt. And the only practicable road onward out of the bridgehead ran eastward into territory now known to be occupied by elements of 21. Panzerdivision.

Having the previous day anticipated his corps commander’s directive, Roberts today carefully avoided executing its intent.4 The 2nd Household Cavalry armoured cars were indeed sent south ‘with the utmost vigour in the direction of Vire’. (A cynic might note that this gesture to O’Connor’s orders was to be carried out by a unit merely on attachment to 11th Armoured, and not an organic part of the division!) But for the rest of the force, the goal of Étouvy was quietly set aside. Far from setting out south-westerly towards that distant objective, a direction served by no practicable road, Roberts looked only to the east and le Bény-Bocage. And even for that prize, he was in no hurry. The Australian correspondent Chester Wilmot was in conversation with Roberts around 13.00 hours on that day. Wilmot recorded of Roberts,

‘He knew then that he had Beny Bocage but he said to me “I’m not telling Corps this yet as they’ll want us to go somewhere else. I can’t go further until the Guards and the 15th Scottish have cleared up the fifty tanks of 21PZ which are between St Denis and the Bois du Homme.”’

According to Wilmot’s notes, civilians declared le Bény-Bocage unoccupied as early as 08.15, with only rearguard pockets left behind the retreating Germans; and he thought Roberts’ delay in advancing ‘inexplicable’. Wilmot did however also recall O’Connor conceding two days later that the corps commander ‘did not think the situation was quite as fluid as I thought.’5

Within the bridgehead, at first light some of the 23rd Hussars’ B Squadron Shermans cautiously made their way back up the hill to Point 205 [modern 207] overlooking the bridge, using the same narrow track as the previous evening. The enemy had gone from the hilltop, leaving behind in their haste a small quartermaster’s store which ‘caused great excitement until it was found to contain nothing of any great interest.’6 Throughout the campaign, British troops were to find German field rations disappointing, although liberating wine and spirits from the enemy would always remain good sport.


Meanwhile, sappers were sent forward to lift mines and clear the Bény-Bocage road for the Hussars to resume the advance, past Sergeant Dixon’s now completely burnt-out Sherman tank, C Squadron leading. There was little sense of urgency. The tanks set off up the narrow, tree-lined road, progressing cautiously on a single-vehicle front until more open ground was reached. Then, one officer recorded, ‘We deploy on high ground on each side of the centre line... As the sun comes up, it is a glorious day, with a fine view across a wooded valley, looking really lovely in the early morning light.’ A leisurely inspection through field glasses revealed movements further along the road, which were met with several rounds of High Explosive and bursts of machinegun fire.


the road to le Bény-Bocage.


the view back over the Soulenvre.

‘The silence of this delightful summer morning is desecrated by the crack of the guns and the air polluted with the acrid smell of explosive. By the middle of the morning we are ordered to move back and once more retire down the hillside where we are pt on two hours notice... almost at once, there are signs of domestic activity – clothes are removed and odd looking figures, quite naked, are to be seen sitting on the shingle bed of the river washing themselves and their garments.’7


la Vallée Surville where 23rd Hussars rested.


Later in the morning the advance resumed, C Squadron’s 3 Troop forward with Sergeant Sear’s tank in the lead. Even then, and with le Bény-Bocage immediately ahead, there came further orders for the Hussars to pull back and allow 3rd Royal Tanks to pass through. By accident or design, Sear did not get the message. Cautiously creeping forward into the small town, Sear’s tank was fired upon by a Panzer IV and his return shot crippled the enemy, hitting one of its tracks. The German crew managed to reverse their vehicle out of Sear’s line of sight, whereupon the tank was abandoned and blown up, its debris scattered across the town square.8 Only then did Sear give way to allow 3rd RTR to occupy the place.

The 3rd Tanks’ A Squadron approached the place with caution. Troops manoeuvred around both sides of the small town before a further troop passed through the centre. Finding it undefended, they pushed clean through to the east to guard against counter-attack. B and C Squadrons followed, declaring the town ‘captured’, allowing the Hussars to follow and join in the ‘liberation’ of the town.


Le Bény-Bocage had barely been touched by the war. Following the initial surprise, the sight of British troops passing through in such numbers was enough to convince the French that their liberation was permanent. Dismounting from the 3rd RTR tanks, the leading company of 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry were first to enjoy the celebratory mood. Close behind, Captain Clayton recalled how,



Sergeant Sear was mobbed by the jubilant crowds in le Bény-Bocage.



Present day the author’s car replaces the Panzer IV wrecked in 1944.

‘This for us was merely a pleasant summer ride in our T.C.V.s, [Troop Carrying Vehicles, i.e., the lorries of a ‘motorized’ battalion] debussing just west of the town where the railway crossed the road. We marched up to be greeted by hysterical Frenchmen and Women.’9

Behind came the 23rd Hussars; and once identified as the nemesis of the German tank, Sergeant Sear was mobbed. Then the 8th Rifle Brigade joined the party. Rifleman Kingsmill of G Company recorded in a letter home,

‘I have truly never seen people go so crazy with joy. Everybody was either shouting, waving, cheering, clapping, kissing one another, singing the “Marseillaise” or doing all the whole lot at once... At one end a Jerry tank, charred and blackened, still pours forth smoke... A gendarme is running up and down the square waving a huge tricolour... Elation? Ecstasy? It’s difficult to find a word that aptly describes it.’10


After seeing so many Normandy villages reduced to rubble and country folk rendered homeless, the experience of liberating an almost undamaged town was exhilarating. Nevertheless, as the commander of the Rifle Brigade’s G Company recorded,

‘After a brief period of rejoicing we moved forward again with a squadron of 3rd R.T.R. and reached St. Charles de Percy, thus cutting the main highway from Caen to Vire. The houses on the crossroads were cleared without much difficulty, and prisoners were taken, in addition to a collection of enemy soft vehicles which were successfully brewed by the tanks.’11

In fact, the village astride the crossroads was la Ferronnière, mistakenly labelled St-Charles-de-Percy on the Army maps.12 But any confusion caused to the British was as nothing compared to the distress caused to the enemy. Once again, it would be some time before a vital artery, believed to be safe behind German lines, was recognised to have been severed. For their part, the men of G Company were conscious of being ‘out on a limb’, even though – exceptionally – the accompanying C Squadron of 3rd RTR did not return to regimental leaguer that night but remained forward. Further reinforced by an H Company motor platoon and a troop of 119 Battery’s 17-pounder M10 self-propelled antitank guns, the infantry dug in for the night.

Meanwhile, the 4th KSLI had been tasked with advancing over the ridge that dominated the north-eastern aspect of le Bény-Bocage. The Shropshires’ A and D Companies set off out of the town to negotiate the steep slopes. The tanks of 3rd RTR moved up the narrow road in support, but initially at least this was an infantry fight. Private Eardley went to ground when his section came under fire from a machinegun just yards away. Lying doggo, then stalking the position and eliminating it with grenades and Sten gun, he won a Military Medal for such utter disregard of his own safety. (Later, near Overloon, Sergeant George Eardley would go on to win the division’s first Victoria Cross.)13 German resistance faltered, the advance reached first point 243 then the summit of the ridge at point 266. The crest was secured, yielding a magnificent view which the D Company commander likened to ‘Box Hill or Wenlock Edge.’14 C Squadron, 3rd RTR followed the track past 243 to point 266, reporting ‘area clear of enemy’ (without acknowledging the role of the infantry!). B Squadron followed C, then pressed forward due north from point 226. C Squadron later descended the southern slopes of 266 to join the 8th RB roadblock at la Ferronnière. A Squadron meanwhile had retraced their move around le Bény-Bocage, following B up the hill to point 243 where they remained until returning to harbour with regimental headquarters on the southern slopes, beside the road east of the town.

Descending the northern face of Hill 266 proved more difficult for both infantry and B Squadron tanks. The advance of the Shropshires’ A and D infantry companies became a scramble down steep, rocky slopes lined with thick pine woods. The two battalion commanders, Colonel Silvertop of 3rd RTR and Major Robinson of 4th KSLI who were trying to co-ordinate the operation, had to abandon their scout cars and struggle forward on foot in order to follow the progress of the advance. B Squadron found the going almost impossible until a narrow track was discovered running down towards the Souleuvre River, enabling the leading tanks to catch up with the infantry and shoot them past some defended hedgerows. Reaching the foot of the escarpment, the Shropshires’ B and C Companies passed through, and raced each other to their main objective: yet another Souleuvre bridge, at point 699439.

B Company won the race. When their Captain Clayton was shot in the arm in the fight for the bridge, a captured Volkswagen seemed ideal to take him to the rear, and he was bundled in. Regrettably, ‘It should have been realised that in this fluid situation a German staff car was bound to be taken for what it was,’15 and on its way to le Bény-Bocage, the German car was fired on by British tanks. The Captain received an even more severe wound, this time in the leg. The remorseful British troopers dosed the Captain with morphia, in their haste forgetting to mark his forehead with the normal warning to prevent further dosing, and the first thing his comatose form received at the Regimental Aid Post was a further injection. Fortunately Clayton, a former London policeman, had a constitution strong enough to withstand overdosing as well as bullets (and survived to revisit the scene in 1970).


Meanwhile, beyond the bridge, C Company cleared the length of the highway running through the little hamlet of Cathéolles: avoiding the open road and instead advancing cautiously on either side, through the backs of the houses and gardens, but encountering no opposition. On the contrary, they were met by the sound of clapping, and advanced to find villagers applauding their liberators. Monsieur le Maire handed over a token German prisoner. The village of Cathéolles was secured. But where was Guards Armoured Division, whose advance from St-Martin was awaited? In late afternoon, tanks of 3rd RTR’s B Squadron led a foray from Cathéolles up the road leading north-west towards le Tourneur; here was encountered not the Guards Division but stiff opposition from German forces. One tank was left burning south-east of the place and another became bogged before the expedition was abandoned.

The KSLI advanced no further, but contented themselves with sitting astride the highway around Cathéolles, and together with the accompanying B Squadron tanks ‘bagging’ unsuspecting German traffic that came motoring south-west towards Vire. The KSLI War Diary records the mixed bag of prisoners taken, ‘mainly from 276 Div, 16 GAF, & 21 Pz Gren’ [sic] reflecting the confused state of the enemy. ‘We kept firing at ‘em, and Max [the KSLI Major Robinson] and the 3rd Tanks Commander having somehow found their way there, were literally dancing encouragement. This ended another good day.’16


‘Mortar Gulch’: steep, rocky slopes lined with thick pine woods.


Tuesday 1 August, 19.00 hours. USAF 30th Reconnassance Squadron captures an image of the Panzer IV burning beside le Tourneur church. (See cover)

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