Military history

Chapter 4

Operation “Epsom”

From the very beginning, this operation was born under an unlucky star. Although the constant rain had stopped by the early light of 26 June 1944, thick fog took its place. As a consequence, the planned immense support from the air from England—for the first time since D-Day—was not possible. Only the fighter-bombers that were already based in Normandy were able to fly sorties. Although 500 were flown, they were likewise appreciably hindered by the fog. The artillery support from some 736 artillery pieces partially fell among friendly ranks.

Passing Cheux on both sides, the 15th Scottish Division and then the 11th Armoured Division fought their way forward towards the Odon in the direction of Mondrainville while sustaining heavy casualties. At this point, six Tigers from schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 attacked, however. From positions south of Colleville, the Tigers engaged the left flank of the 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry and drove it back. The 7th Seaforth Highlanders experienced a similar fate. Their frontal advance on Colleville was stopped by PaKs as well as Tigers in positions at Mouen. The British infantry had to attack again. Late in the afternoon, the 2nd Gordon Highlanders succeeded in penetrating into Colleville for a period of time. Half of the seventeen Churchills of C Squadron of the 7th Royal Tank Regiment that were supporting the attack were knocked out; the rest were forced to pull back. The forces in Colleville were encircled; most were taken prisoner.

That evening, the 15th Scottish Division was ordered to advance to the Odon the next day. Following that, the 11th Armoured Division was to move on to the actual objective, the Orne. This was an ambitious plan, as will be seen later. It is even more astounding inasmuch as this was the very first combat operation for most of the British formations involved.

Difficulties were preordained because the three tank brigades were crammed together in an area of only around 7 square kilometers (about 4.3 square miles) and then only a few kilometers away from the German lines. There was not enough room to deploy and develop any type of offensive punch. The 10th Highland Light Infantry Regiment, which was employed south of Cheux, got bogged down in the Germans’ heavy defensive fires. That evening, the commander said the following to his officers and senior noncommissioned officers:

I am very disappointed with you all. You’ve shown me what you’re made of; you’re yellow, practically the whole bloody lot of you! I am ashamed of you. There will be some changes made and they won’t be very nice, I can tell you. I’ve never seen such a bloody awful performance, it really was stinking. (Tim Saunders, Operation Epsom)

Several soldiers were reduced in rank the same day. From the German standpoint, such actions were truly incomprehensible.

The 2nd Gordon Highlanders were finally able to dislodge the defending SS-Panzer-Aufklärungs-Abteilung 12 from Colleville after sustaining heavy casualties. It was then intended for the 29th Armoured Brigade to finally take the banks of the Odon. Several Tigers of schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 offered combat, but they were unable to do anything against the numerical superiority and the heavy artillery fire. A Tiger was knocked out by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment at Mouen; another one was lost at Colleville. The SS reconnaissance soldiers had to pull back in a hurry; towards 1700 hours, the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders succeeded in capturing the bridge at Tourmauville intact. The bridge at Gavrus was also lost. The enemy expanded his bridgehead that same evening and sent tanks across. As a result of the enemy’s success, the German counterattacks originally planned for this day were overcome by events.

In his book concerning the 11th Armoured Division, Monty’s Marauders, Patrick Delaforce recounts the events of the day as follows:

The 2nd Fife and Forfarshire took casualties but fought their way towards Grainville, where, despite heavy fire plans and attacks by 15th Scottish supported by Churchill tanks, the German defences held firm. 119 Battery 75 A/Tank claimed one Tiger and five Panthers, put out of action round Cheux for the loss of Sergeant Hancock’s M-10. At Norrey-en-Bessin 118 Battery had a troop under command of 4 KSLI, 1st Herefords and 3rd Mons. On the left (east) the 23rd Hussars battled their way on. Two Honeys were knocked out by a single AP shot near Cheux and another by an SP gun from Mouen down at the railway. B squadron pushed through Mouen to a position north-west of Mondrainville and picked off targets on the far side of their objective, the River Odon. Their Belgian Major, Henri Le Grand, DSO, was killed in action when four 23rd Hussar tanks were brewed up by 88s east of Mouen. Mondrainville was like a wasps’ nest full of Panthers and snipers, and was then only partially “smoked out.” The main Caen-Villers road was straight and well covered by 88s and German tanks. “Mondrainville was a blackened mass of ruin,” wrote Rifleman Norman Habertin. “Burning tanks were poking out of doorways, enemy guns were overturned; in fact it was like most of the other villages in Normandy.”

When the depleted Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders seized an unblown bridge over the River Odon at Tourmauville, C squadron swept through and crossed the river at about 1730 hrs. By 1900 hrs two squadrons of 23rd Hussars were across the river and H Company 8 RB [Rifle Brigade] were guarding the precious Odon bridge. But on the west bank the German counter-attack towards Mondrainville took its toll, and half a dozen tanks were lost. During the 27th, 23rd Hussars lost twenty-four killed, twenty-four wounded and five, including two officers, were taken prisoner. It had been a tough and dangerous day.

The divisional artillery fired “Uncle” targets against Tiger tanks on the east side of the river. Later on 2nd Fife and Forfarshire Yeomanry crossed, followed by the infantry of the Herefords and 4 KSLI. Unfortunately 3rd Mons set off in the dark, wandered offline and found themselves in the village of Mouen, south-east of Cheux. Leaving C Company to hold Mouen, 3rd Mons moved south, took Colleville and Mondrainville and arrived on the north bank of the River Odon by dawn. The Germans counter-attacked at Mouen and captured or killed all but fourteen of C Company. Despite a chaotic briefing by the 159 Infantry Brigade CO, 4 KSLI made their way from Odon, missed the covering artillery barrage, marched cross country through the night, crossed the River Odon, captured their objective, Baron, and were well dug in by dawn. A superb effort.

Starting early on the morning of 28 June 1944, elements of the 8th Rifle Brigade advanced as far as Hill 112.

The British offensive was successfully able to fend off a counterattack by Kampfgruppe Weidinger—with several Tigers in support—that was launched in the direction of Grainville (north of the Odon). It also turned back an attack from the east on Bretteville by Kampfgruppe Frey. The enemy was immediately turned out of Mouen, however, and Colleville was also attacked. The British corridor to the Odon was becoming progressively smaller. In addition, six Tigers of the 1./schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 attacked from Maltot in the direction of Hill 112. Although the German attack wavered, an advance by elements of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment from the northwest side of Hill 112 in the direction of Esquay was turned back.

On 29 June 1944, the forces in the bridgehead were reinforced by the 129th Infantry Brigade and the good weather conditions enabled devastating bombing attacks by the Allies. But the arrival of the 9. SS-Panzer-Division “Hohenstaufen” and the 10. SS-Panzer-Division “Frundsberg” made the situation for the British considerably worse. Although the attacks of the total of five SS armored divisions only made slow progress, the position of the British became untenable.

In order not to be cut off, the forces on the far side of the Odon pulled back. The first attempt to take Hill 112 had been turned back.

In Patrick Delaforce’s book The Black Bull, the day is described as follows:

3 RTR [Royal Tank Regiment] were in action most of the day with 13 RHA FOOs [Royal Horse Artillery Forward Observation Officers] bringing down divisional barrages and Typhoon fire on Tigers dug into the woods.

At Gavrus 119 Battery 75 A/tank destroyed five tanks including one Tiger, lost two of their M-10s and two officers were killed, a third on the 30th. At 1800 hrs the expected major counter-attacks started coming to cut the Villers-Bocage-Caen road and the road from Noyers to Cheux. On Hill 112 Noel Bell saw:

At last light some eight tanks reported as Tigers together with about 150 infantry advancing from the west. Very lights were going up and machine gunning broke out. Artillery support was enlisted—time was urgent—and a devastating barrage was brought to bear on the advancing infantry. The gunners succeeded in wreaking complete havoc on the enemy on the ground. The tanks finding their ground support virtually liquidated … withdrew. With darkness now complete we awaited our next call to action.

“We were more concerned about survival on Hill 112 than the Orne bridges,” remarked Bill Close, 3 RTR.

We knew there was only a narrow corridor behind us back to the Odon and were afraid of being cut off or attacked in the rear … We lost about a dozen tanks in all … five from my squadron.

Before dawn:

We move slowly up to the crest. Suddenly there is a flash on my left and an 88 whistles in front of my tank. We swing round and fire at him. Meanwhile Tiger tanks are reported advancing on our position. They are engaged, orders to withdraw to our new position are given, and the last but one my troop is told to go. The little stone bridge over the Odon has stood, thank God, and with my corporal towing a broken down tank in front we rumble over.

Just over an hour before dawn we were again ordered to withdraw. With most of the vehicles already gone, it was once more a case of climbing on to anything that moved. Through the night we made our way back to an area south-west of Norrey-en-Bessin (6 miles north of the Odon bridge). Even God never knew how good it was for us to see the sun again.

At the end of Operation “Epsom,” VIII Corps had 4,020 casualties. 15th Scottish suffered most with 2,331, and 11th Armoured and 43rd Division lost 1,256.

In the days that followed, the few operational Tigers of schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101 were sporadically committed west of Maltot. The 1st Company transferred its seven remaining Tigers to the 3rd Company; its personnel then moved to Paderborn on 9 July 1944 to be issued the new Tiger II. This company would never return to the Normandy area of operations.

Although Operation “Epsom” proved in the final analysis to be a miscalculation, it had also negated the German intent of deliberately regrouping for a major attack. When the II. SS-Panzer-Korps launched its counterattack, it had also proven problematical that the zone of attack was still within range of the large-caliber naval artillery, which was able to effectively intervene in the ground combat. Both Generalfeldmarschall Rommel and Generalfeldmarschall von Runstedt—the latter particularly so—had attempted to stress this fact upon Hitler when they met with the Führer at Margival (vicinity of Soissons) on 17 June 1944. Another meeting with the Führer—this time at Berchtesgaden on 29 June 1944—reinforced their impression that Hitler was somewhat in the dark on how critical the entire situation was. When the Commander-in-Chief of Panzergruppe West, Generaloberst Geyr von Schweppenburg, recommended on the following day that the portions of Caen on the far side of the Orne be abandoned and that this recommendation was expressly supported by Generalfeldmarschall von Runstedt, it was all too much for Hitler. He ordered all current positions be held where they were and replaced Generalfeldmarschall von Runstedt with Generalfeldmarschall von Kluge. On 3 July, Generaloberst Geyr von Schweppenburg was replaced by General der Panzertruppen Heinrich Eberbach.

On 8 and 9 July 1944, the British and the Canadians finally took Caen in heavy fighting, at least what was left of it.

In the meantime, schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 102 had also entered this sector, and it was positioned southwest of Caen at St. Honorine du Fay right before the start of the new British offensive across the Odon on the evening of 9 July 1944, Operation “Jupiter.” On 7 and 8 July, the officers of the battalion had an opportunity to conduct leaders’ reconnaissance of their new area of operations. This was one of the reasons for the successes of the next few days.

This is view the attacking British had of the dominant piece of terrain, Hill 112. It demonstrates how difficult it was to assault across terrain that was practically without cover or concealment.

View from Mondrainville to the south. The vegetation in the middle marks the location of the Odon. It can be clearly seen that the terrain climbs steadily behind the river line and, in addition, offers little in the way of cover or concealment. It was therefore especially important for the British not to lose any momentum in their attack.

The newly activated schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 102 prepared for its future operations at the Dutch training area at Wezep. For the road march to Normandy that followed, the battalion needed nearly three weeks.

Juli = July; Juni = June

The battalion’s road march to Normandy took nearly two weeks after passing through Paris. Camouflaged with vegetation, the tanks resembled moving bushes in an effort to disguise themselves from Allied air activity. As a result of the extensive camouflage efforts, the tanks were only infrequently discovered by fighter-bombers. Like its sister battalion, schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 102 suffered no casualties from the air during its long road march.

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