During the Epsom operation and after it, Montgomery continued his policy of telling Eisenhower as little as possible. ‘Ike is considerably less than exuberant these days,’ Eisenhower’s aide wrote in his diary. The ‘slowness of Monty’s attack’ was one his chief concerns, and Eisenhower had spoken to Churchill about it while the battle was in full swing.
Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, and Air Marshal Coningham even discussed the possibility of having Montgomery relieved. Coningham, who commanded the Tactical Air Force supporting 21st Army Group, had loathed Montgomery since the North African campaign. He had never been able to forgive Montgomery’s compulsion to take all the credit. Now he was infuriated by Montgomery’s pretence that his strategy was proceeding according to plan when he had manifestly failed to take the ground needed for airfields.
Senior American officers were becoming scornful of what they saw as inexcusable caution on the British front. By 30 June, the British Second Army had suffered 24,698 casualties since the invasion began, while the Americans had lost 34,034 men, nearly half as many again. (German losses for the same period were 80,783.) Casualties on D-Day itself had been much lighter than expected, but since then the situation had deteriorated rapidly. British infantry casualties were 80 per cent higher than estimated and there were fewer and fewer replacements to bring units back up to strength.36
On top of an instinctive abhorrence of heavy losses from his experience in the First World War, Montgomery felt he had an even stronger reason for caution in his attacks. Yet he did not discuss the manpower crisis with Eisenhower. The British feared losing face as well as power. Churchill was worried that such an admission of British weakness would reduce his influence with Roosevelt when it came to deciding the post-war future of Europe. It would not be long, however, before Montgomery’s 21st Army Group had to disband the 59th Division to reinforce other formations. And in November, to Churchill’s renewed dismay, the 50th Division would also be split up.
Montgomery’s reluctance to incur losses in Normandy has long been a target for criticism. But the faults were perhaps more institutional than merely personal. The disappointing performance of his three veteran divisions from North Africa, the 7th Armoured, the 50th Northumbrian and the 51st Highland Division, revealed a war-weariness in large parts of the British Army. An aversion to risk had become widespread and opportunities were seldom exploited. The repeated failures to crack the German front round Caen inevitably blunted an aggressive outlook. Increasingly, the Second Army in Normandy preferred to rely on the excellent support provided by the Royal Artillery and on Allied air power. The idea that high explosive saved British lives became almost addictive. But it certainly did not save French lives, as Montgomery’s next offensive showed in the most shocking way.
The battle for Caen began on 4 July with Operation Windsor, a preliminary attack by the Canadian 8th Infantry Brigade to seize the village and airfield of Carpiquet to the west of the city. Carpiquet was defended by a small detachment of their most hated enemy, the 12th SS Panzer-DivisionHitler Jugend. This battle, with the Régiment de la Chaudière, the Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada, the North Shore and the Winnipeg Rifles out for revenge, was to be one of the most vicious of the whole Normandy campaign.
The village and the airfield were held by fewer than 200 members of the 26th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment and five Mark IV tanks brought up by night and hidden in the battered hangars at the southern end. But their most powerful weapons consisted of a battery of 88 mm guns sited to cover the eastern part of the airfield. They also had an artillery battalion and some Nebelwerfer batteries from the 7th Mortar Brigade.
The Canadians attacked at 05.00 hours, supported by the heavy guns of HMS Rodney and the monitor HMS Roberts at a range of fifteen miles. The village was pounded to rubble. Many of the fifty-odd SS panzergrenadiers were buried alive. Coated in dust, some managed to struggle out from under the fallen beams and debris. They cleaned their weapons rapidly and fought back as the Régiment de la Chaudière attacked. Despite their small number, they inflicted heavy casualties on their attackers, but by 14.00 hours the remnants of the village were in Canadian hands. The few prisoners taken were treated roughly after the bitter fight.
Canadian artillery and the warships had also pounded the airfield itself. The SS artillery observer died, skewered with ‘a twenty-five centimeter long fragment of a ship’s artillery shell sticking in his back’. The Queen’s Own Rifles, supported by the Shermans of the Fort Garry Horse, attacked the eastern end of the airfield, but the well-sited German 88s forced back the Canadian tanks. Those infantrymen who reached the hangars and the barracks faced a hard fight, since the fanatical young panzergrenadiers were installed in bunkers and tunnels. In many cases, Canadian infantry went past concealed positions without spotting them and were then shot in the back.
The Winnipeg Rifles advanced on the southern end of the airfield backed by another squadron and also some flame-throwing Crocodiles from the 79th Armoured Division. They too came under heavy fire. The Nebelwerfer ‘Moaning Minnies’ and the SS artillery battalion turned the airfield into a killing ground. The Winnipegs and their armour were forced to pull back to the cover of a small wood beyond the perimeter. They tried again in the afternoon, but by then the 12th SS had brought up more panzers. The Germans had been listening in to the Canadian radio net and knew their next move.
That night, after an unsuccessful attack by Allied fighter-bombers, the I SS Panzer Corps sent in the 1st SS Panzergrenadier-Regiment from the Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler to recapture the village of Carpiquet. The survivors from the 12th SS on the airfield were meanwhile told to withdraw with their wounded. But the attack of the 1st Panzergrenadiers was hit initially by fire from their own artillery and then by a massive bombardment from Canadian guns and the warships. According to one Canadian source, the French Canadians of the Régiment de la Chaudière went berserk around dawn, cutting the throats of any SS men they could find, ‘wounded as well as dead’. Officers with drawn pistols eventually brought them back under control. An officer with the regiment wrote, ‘No prisoners are taken this day on either side.’
The Canadians never managed to take Carpiquet with Operation Windsor. They blamed their failure on the British 43rd Division, which lost the village of Verson, just south of the airfield, when attacked by part of the 1st SS Panzer-Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler. Verson was not retaken until four days later, when the major attack on Caen itself took place.
Montgomery, well aware of the exasperation building up against him in Whitehall, SHAEF and at Bradley’s First US Army headquarters, knew that he could not delay the capture of Caen any longer.37 He would have to attack the city head on. The offensive would be called Operation Charnwood. On 6 July, to reduce British casualties, he decided to request a massive bombing attack by the RAF to hammer a way through, a possibility which Leigh-Mallory had suggested three weeks earlier. And on 25 June, Eisenhower had written to him, ‘Please do not hesitate to make the maximum demands for any air assistance that can possibly be useful to you. Whenever there is any legitimate opportunity we must blast the enemy with everything we have.’ On the same day, he also wrote to Tedder asking him to ensure that air support ‘in maximum volume’ was delivered.
On 7 July, Eisenhower himself went to a conference at Bentley Priory called by Leigh-Mallory to consider the plan. Even Air Chief Marshal Harris, the head of Bomber Command, did not object for once. It was agreed that 467 Lancasters and Halifaxes would attack the northern fringe of Caen that evening with delayed-action bombs. The two main sceptics, neither of whom was present at the meeting, were Eisenhower’s deputy, Air Chief Marshal Tedder, and Montgomery’s foe Air Marshal Coningham. They feared that the Second Army would keep asking for Bomber Command every time it wanted to mount an offensive, but Eisenhower’s support for the plan made them hold their peace.
When the massed formations of Lancasters and Halifaxes appeared that evening at 20.30 hours, British and Canadian infantry jumped out of their slit trenches to cheer. Tank crews climbed on to their turrets to get a better view. ‘There was high cloud and the sun was reddening [the Lancasters] all across the sky,’ wrote an artillery officer in his diary. ‘An incredible barrage of flak’ went up from German anti-aircraft batteries. British and Canadian artillery immediately began firing on their positions to help the RAF.
‘We could see when the Lancasters released their bombs because they suddenly lifted several feet in the air,’ a medical officer wrote. ‘More and more bombers go in through the flak,’ wrote the same artillery officer. ‘A cloud of smoke starts to rise over the target, dirty grey white, blowing over to the north east.’ ‘Now and then, though pretty rarely, one of our planes comes down. A Lancaster spirals down to the north andcrashes apparently into the sea. A number of parachutes open out and sail slowly down.’ Then yet another wave of bombers appeared. ‘The cloud over Caen covers the whole eastern and south eastern horizon. Now angry glows cover the same area as it gets dark. What could be more encouraging to our chaps?’
An officer in the Guards Armoured Division described the bombing of Caen as ‘a magnificent spectacle’. Most spectators evidently assumed that French civilians had been evacuated. ‘I sat smoking a cigarette beside a river watching 2,300 tons of bombs being dropped on Caen 6 or 7 miles away,’ wrote a major in the Canadian parachute battalion east of the Orne. ‘What an incredible sight it was - the poor bloody hun!’
While most cheered at the sight, a few had misgivings. ‘The awful thing was,’ wrote a captain in the Coldstream Guards, ‘that as an infantryman one was thinking: Why on earth are they knocking it to bits because it will be so easy to defend?’ ‘The sight was frightening,’ wrote a member of the Somerset Light Infantry. ‘Yellow tongues leapt up as the bombs burst on the stricken city and the rising smoke - combined with the dust from the devastated buildings-formed a blackened cloud which spread rapidly across the evening sky.’ Throughout the raid some six miles away, they felt ‘the ground beneath their feet tremble like jelly’.
If the ground shook six miles away, the effect within the city itself can hardly be imagined. One elderly man was asked later what it had felt like during the bombing raid of 7 July. He thought for some time before answering, ‘Imagine a rat sewn up inside a football during an international match . . .’
The 15,000 inhabitants remaining in Caen despite German orders to leave could be forgiven for assuming that the bombers had targeted the centre of the city, rather than the northern outskirts. Many seemed to think that the ancient castle was the aiming point. Windows with any glass left in literally exploded from the concussion of the bombs. In the convent of Notre Dame de Bon Secours, the homeless seeking refuge there were blinded by dust and felt the bitter smoke in their throats: ‘We had the impression of being thrown around on a ship in distress, beaten by a horrible storm and about to founder.’ The only remaining candle was extinguished by shock waves. In a calm voice, the Mother Superior kept blessing them ‘with a relic of the True Cross’.
As buildings collapsed all around, the sick lying in cots reacted to the noise and tremors with dilated eyes. Nuns offered sips of water with one hand while fingering their rosaries and praying rapidly. The housekeeper of the priest of Saint-Jean-Eudes cried out to him a hurried confession as she was being carried away on a stretcher: ‘Monsieur le Curé, go into the garden. I buried for you a shirt and a dozen handkerchiefs. If I hadn’t you would have given them all away.’
When the bombing finished, young civil defence volunteers arrived at the convent, urging them to depart immediately. They left by the only door which could be opened. The Mother Superior led the way along the Fossés Saint-Julien, carrying the sacred ciborium, ‘a grandiose procession in an unforgettable setting under a magnificent sky dotted with stars, fires all around giving off a red glow, sparks falling all around and delayed action bombs still exploding’. They had to climb over great trees knocked down by the bombs as they made their way to the Bon Sauveur led by a member of the Défense Passive. One youth returned to the convent to guard it against looters and hide the large silver statue of Notre Dame de la Délivrande.
In Caen that evening, the university on the rue Pasteur was almost completely destroyed. Inhabitants sheltering in old cellars, who thought they were safe, were buried alive. In the rue de Geôle, over thirty died, and another fifty in a shelter in the rue de Vaugueux. British officers were horrified to hear from their own civil affairs division that 6,000 had died, but this would have represented nearly half of those left in the city. Another figure given at the time was 2,000. In fact the true number was close to 350 deaths,38 which was still a terrible loss considering that over three-quarters of the population had left the city and that most of those who remained were sheltering in deep cellars.
Inhabitants of Caen had feared the worst, having heard German officers declare that the city would be the ‘French Stalingrad’. Yet they were then encouraged by clear signs that the Wehrmacht was preparing to withdraw. On 26 June, rear troops began to pull out. The Gestapo returned to destroy evidence of their massacre of Resistance prisoners. And on 6 July, German engineers began to destroy the port installations in Caen along the ship canal. That day the Feldkommandantur also gave orders for the remaining civilians to evacuate the town, but once again that had little effect. Only a screen of SS Hitler Jugend panzergrenadiers was left in Caen itself.
The bombing was a double disaster. It had failed to destroy most of the German positions around the northern fringe of Caen and instead inflicted massive damage on the city. The RAF’s fear of hitting the British troops waiting to advance had shifted the bomb-line south towards the city centre, missing the German positions. The mistake was similar to the American failure to hit the beach defences at Omaha. Few except Montgomery ever believed that the bombing had been militarily effective. The only troops who appear to have been hit belonged to a detachment of the Luftwaffe 16th Feld-Division which had taken over from the 21st Panzer-Division near Lebisey, as well as two tanks and a mortar section of the Hitler Jugend in the villages just north of Caen. Worst of all, the attack, like the German bombing of Stalingrad, turned much of the city into amass of rubble which impeded the advance of vehicles and provided an ideal terrain for the defenders.39 General Eberbach described the city as ‘a heap of ruins which was hard to cross’.
The reason given for bombing on the evening which preceded the attack was said to have been a fear of bad weather the next day. But the meteorological reports for 8 July do not support this. And even allowing for the delayed-action bombs, the German defenders were given all the time they needed to reorganize. Losses suffered by British and Canadian units advancing into and around the city were far higher than expected, despite the heavy artillery bombardment. Lebisey wood was smashed to the point where it looked like something out of the First World War.
The Hitler Jugend emerged from their cellars and bunkers with Panzerfaust grenade launchers to take on the Shermans and Crocodile flame-throwers at close range. Riflemen climbed trees and tied themselves in. Their main target appears to have been the commanders of tanks which were‘ shooting in’ the infantry. The marksmanship of the SS panzergrenadiers was evidently far superior to that of ordinary German infantry divisions. On that day alone, the East Riding Yeomanry lost five crew commanders and a squadron leader from snipers.
Stretcher-bearers taking wounded to the rear became exhausted. ‘There were all sorts of casualties,’ recounted a member of 223rd Field Ambulance with the British 3rd Infantry Division. ‘There were legs without feet, there were knees without kneecaps, there were shoulders without arms. I remember one sergeant major brought in with half of his head blown away, yet he was still conscious, and the MO said to me: “Give him two grains of morphia: it’ll finish him quickly”. But it didn’t. And chest wounds, shocking chest wounds. On that one day we treated 466 British casualties and 40 Germans.’
In the advanced dressing station of 210th Field Ambulance, the doctors and staff also had to deal with a wide variety of battle casualties. They included ‘a group of terrified, disorientated lads - battle shocked, jittering and yelling in a corner’. ‘Several SS wounded came in - a tough and dirty bunch - some had been snipers up trees for days. One young Nazi had a broken jaw and was near death, but before he fainted he rolled his head over and murmured “Heil Hitler!”.’
In field dressing stations, those doomed to die were taken away to another tent and injected with morphine. Medical staff became worried about the shortage of blood left for transfusions. They were also horrified by the ignorance of troops on how best to handle the wounded. Soldiers did far more damage moving those with severe fractures rather than leaving them where they were until trained stretcher-bearers could splint them up. ‘All the lessons of the First World War seemed to have been forgotten,’ wrote the same doctor with 210th Field Ambulance. Like the rest of his exhausted colleagues, he was afraid that his judgement was impaired by lack of sleep.
The ‘Führer order’ that Caen was to be held at all costs was followed for all of 8 July. Only that night did General Eberbach agree to Kurt Meyer’s insistence that the mangled remains of his Hitler Jugend should pull back to the southern part of Caen across the Orne. Eberbach felt the withdrawal could be justified to OKW because they were virtually out of ammunition and it was impossible to send forward any more.
On 9 July, the city still lay under a pall of smoke and dust. André Heintz was woken at 05.30 hours by a companion in the Resistance. ‘The Germans are leaving!’ he told him. They watched the convoys pulling out through the town, yet no British guns fired. Their leader, Commandant Gilles, distributed the last few Sten guns and sent his members off northwards in pairs to act as guides for the Allied forces. Heintz put on his brassard, a tricolore with the Cross of Lorraine. Suddenly seeing a German soldier near what had been the university swimming pool, he snatched it off again. But the German was dead, frozen in position, having been killed by blast. The brassard was recognized by the first British soldiers he encountered, who gave him the thumbs-up sign.
So great was the destruction that, even with their maps, the British and Canadians found it impossible to work out where they were. Most routes were impassable and there were isolated snipers left behind. A column of Canadian armoured cars descended the rue Saint-Martin. The commander, whose orders were to cross the town as rapidly as possible to try to secure the bridges, asked a bystander, ‘Where is the River Orne?’ He climbed on to the armoured car to give directions, but a German defensive position further on opened up with machine-gun and anti-tank gun fire. The armoured car went into rapid reverse, and their French guide had to leap off and hide in a doorway.
The Hitler Jugend, having pulled back to the south of the Orne across the only bridge left standing, rapidly prepared it for demolition and established defensive positions. They forced locals at gunpoint to dig them trenches in the convent gardens of Les Petites Soeurs des Pauvres and cut down apple trees to improve the fields of fire for their machine guns. Cellar entrances were also sandbagged, ready for defence. The bridge was blown as soon as the leading Canadian platoon came into sight.
At the northern edge of Caen, the British civil affairs team under Lieutenant Colonel Usher had to abandon its vehicles. ‘At last,’ wrote one of his officers. ‘Entered Caen with party of officers. The north end seems utterly devastated. Pile after pile of rubble and a deathly silence punctuated only by occasional bursts of machine gun fire.’
An officer from civil affairs told André Heintz that they intended to set up their headquarters in the Hôtel d’Angleterre. Heintz guided them to it, knowing that the only evidence of its former identity was a remnant of the royal arms with ‘Honi soit qui mal y pense’. He resisted the temptation to say that the British should not have destroyed it, but the officer himself recognized the black irony. He let Heintz lead him to the only area of the city where some buildings were relatively undamaged, but then asked if they would be able to have a bath. Heintz explained that Caen had been without water since the first bombing on 6 June. The liberators still seemed to have no idea what the city had suffered, despite the evidence around them. The following day, a Canadian captain asked for advice on a good restaurant in Caen, because he was sick of eating army rations.
Some Germans, who had been cut off, searched for civilian clothes in the ruins to help their escape. Others, especially some Osttruppen, began looting. Commandant Gilles and a couple of his men found two young SS soldiers trying to hide. They handed them over proudly to some Canadian troops on the rue de Bayeux. Care had to be taken in many places, as the SS had left behind booby-trapped grenades.
Civilians emerged, unable to believe that four years of German occupation was finally over and fearful that the SS might retake the town in a counter-attack. Some greeted the Allied soldiers with real warmth and joy, but far more were still numb from what they had been through. ‘Most of the women were crying bitterly,’ wrote a British sapper, ‘griefstricken and anguished. They lingered by their shattered dwellings, perhaps for a last look at their own personal treasures. A child’s book lay in the garden, its pages idly flipped by the wind. Inside the house, the doors hung creaking on their hinges, the tables lay where they had fallen from that first great concussion.’
Colonel Usher’s groups set to work rapidly, clearing routes with bulldozers and trying to set up an emergency water supply. Most basic services were not restored until September. A convoy of army trucks with food had been prepared ready for the entry into Caen. Mine clearance was a slow and arduous task, and so was the recovery of bodies from under the rubble of ruined buildings. The stench from decomposing corpses was terrible. In fact, many people in Caen, however hungry, could not face a ripe Camembert for a long time because of the horrible memories evoked by the smell.
On 10 July, a ceremony to raise the tricolore on the façade of the Eglise Saint-Etienne was held in the presence of Monsieur Daure, the new préfet appointed by de Gaulle’s provisional government. Tears ran down the cheeks of many of those present. Three days later, the British Second Army held what was supposed to be a victory parade in the Place Saint-Martin. A Scottish pipe band struck up, as another tricolore was raised. The bewilderment on the faces of the French crowd was plain. They had never heard the ‘Marseillaise’ played on bagpipes.
Operation Charnwood had been a very partial success, taking just the northern part of Caen. The Second Army had failed to secure enough ground to permit the build-up to continue. The bulk of what was to become the Canadian First Army had to wait behind in England. Exasperation at Bradley’s headquarters and at SHAEF was now echoed loudly in Washington and in the American press. Many blamed Eisenhower for not adopting a firmer line with Montgomery.
On 10 July, Montgomery held a conference in his command caravan with Dempsey and Bradley. There was much to discuss, with the British blocked round Caen and the First US Army bogged down in the marshes and the bocage to the west. Montgomery suggested that Bradley was trying to attack on too wide a front. What he needed was a concentrated punch. Montgomery, as a result, later convinced himself that he was the original architect of what became Operation Cobra. Dempsey, that morning, decided that he also needed to mount a major offensive, aiming at a breakthrough towards Falaise. Since this was what the Germans feared most, it would also keep German panzer forces on the British front, as Montgomery wanted. This outline plan would become known as Operation Goodwood.
For the moment, however, another attempt was made to seize Hill 112, the key feature between the Odon and the Orne abandoned during Operation Epsom. The fighting for Hill 112 became pitiless. Germans of the 9th SS Panzer-Division Hohenstaufen soon called the place ‘Kalvarienberg’, the hill of Calvary. The name came from the Croix des Filandriers, a shrine of the crucifixion, which seemed to take on a new significance.
On 10 July, at 05.00 hours, the 43rd Wessex Division attacked from the Odon valley towards Hill 112 in Operation Jupiter. The divisional commander, Major General G. I. Thomas, was ‘a small, fiery, very determined and grim gunner, without a spark of humour’. Thomas, who had just taken over, was determined to shake up his new command. He seems to have been generally disliked. Behind his back, officers called him ‘von Thoma’. One brigade was to attack Hill 112, while the other on the left advanced on the village of Eterville.
The 129th Brigade heading for Hill 112 had to advance again across open cornfields sprinkled with poppies. Nebelwerfer rocket launchers opened fire. Sergeant Partridge with the 4th Battalion Somerset Light Infantry described how, on hearing the scream of the ‘Moaning Minnies’, ‘eleven men dived into the corn for cover. Only one stood up again.’ Whenever they encountered wounded Germans in the corn, there was little they could do except remove the bolt from their Mauser rifle and fling it far away.
After losing most of their men, they became pinned down by heavy machine-gun fire in the corn. The platoon commander ordered Partridge to hurl a smoke grenade so that they could advance again. Partridge thought it a stupid idea, but complied. As soon as he had thrown it, the platoon commander jumped to his feet before the smoke billowed and was shot. He gasped, ‘Sarn’t Partridge,’ then expired. Partridge rounded up the other four survivors and crawled back through the corn some way, dug a pit and made a cup of tea, which they shared between them.
While the 129th Brigade struggled up Hill 112, the 130th Brigade on the left captured Eterville and then advanced towards the village of Maltot. The 7th Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment and the 5th Battalion of the Dorsets, with their supporting tanks of the 44th Royal Tank Regiment, had little idea of the shock awaiting them. The 502nd SS Heavy Panzer Battalion equipped with Mark VI Tiger tanks, the largest and most formidable fighting machine seen on the western front, was converging on the same spot. Unable to see what was ahead, the Tigers of one company smashed through the hedgerow in front and found themselves facing four Shermans. The Tigers’ 88 mm guns turned three of them into blazing wrecks in a moment. The fourth escaped using high reverse. The Dorsets, unaware that the other battalion had withdrawn, were soon engaged in house-to-house fighting in the village. They learned the hard way that when clearing a building you had to go straight for the top rooms. If they went through a farmhouse and into the courtyard at the back, it was too easy for the Germans upstairs to throw down grenades or fire from the windows.
A mile and a half to the west, the British 129th Brigade almost reached the small road crossing the top of Hill 112, but the weight of German fire forced the battered 4th Somerset Light Infantry in the middle to go to ground again. At 17.00 hours, the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry was sent on through the Somersets in another attempt to reach the top. Their advance just over the brow of the hill reached a small wood of chestnuts. There they were cut to pieces by machine-gun fire from the German positions on the reverse slope, then attacked by panzers. Part of the Cornwalls ran back in disorder. A wounded officer tried to halt this retreat: ‘He had been hit in the jaw, so that part of his face had dropped, and he was waving a pistol and trying to shout, making terrible sounds.’ Meanwhile the commanding officer of the Somersets and the brigade commander, trying to maintain an air of confidence in front of their men, sat on their shooting sticks in the open discussing the situation.
Despite the mortar and sniper fire, the Somersets held on in ‘slit trenches scraped out of the bare open slope’. With Nebelwerfer mortar shells exploding continuously, the crews of their supporting armour remained closed down. But one officer was so desperate to relieve himself that he jumped out of his Sherman, grabbed a shovel off the back and raced across to a knocked-out tank nearby, where he proceeded to drop his trousers. Meanwhile, British artillery continued to hammer the summit. ‘Not a metre of ground escaped being ploughed up by shells,’ a member of the SSHohenstaufen wrote. After nightfall, each company colour sergeant brought up hot food in containers and supplies of cigarettes for the infantry in the forward positions. For once there was more than enough to go around, because ‘no allowance had been made for casualties’. Their only complaint was that the tea tasted of petrol.
Dawn on 11 July did not improve visibility because of a thick mist - ‘eine Milchsuppe’, as the Hohenstaufen described it. But high overhead a British artillery spotter plane appeared just as the 19th and 20th SS Panzergrenadier-Regiments were about to attack. The crews of the Tiger tanks with them feared the worst. They quickly realized that the safest place would be in among their enemy. They charged the British positions, rolling over trenches. With an ironic admiration, they saw British anti-tank crews trying to bring their ineffective guns to bear. ‘They’re brave, the Anglo-Saxons!’ one of them noted.
The monster panzers suddenly emerged from the bank of mist. ‘We had a scene in front of us of which every Tiger dreams,’ a crew member wrote. Barely a hundred yards away was a forward replenishment point with ammunition trucks and other vehicles, including tanks. ‘Our commander called out: “Armour-piercing! Open fire!”.’ Two Churchill tanks in front of them were traversing their turrets towards them, but the Tigers blasted them at close range and they both exploded into flames.
That day, General Eberbach told II SS Panzer Corps that Hill 112 must not be lost under any circumstances. It was a ‘Schlüsselstellung’ - a key position. Frantic telephone calls followed in an attempt to secure replacements of both men and materiel. The panzergrenadiers supported by the Tiger companies held the ridge all day.
After dusk, D Company of the Somersets received orders to ‘infiltrate the enemy position’. ‘The despair I felt when this order reached me can be imagined,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge, who had taken over command of his platoon after the death of their lieutenant the day before. Weapons were cleaned and ammunition distributed. At 01.00 hours, they rose out of their slit trenches and advanced silently. But as soon as they reached the barbed wire on the summit which the SS panzergrenadiers had erected, a murderous fire opened. The platoons threw themselves flat. ‘The tracer bullets,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge, ‘were arcing their way almost lazily through the air, winging their way to pre-selected targets chosen during daylight, and now being fired on “fixed lines”.’
Any attempt to breach the wire ended when a section commander attempted to scramble through. A German bullet hit a phosphorus grenade in his ammunition pouch. ‘Struggling in desperation,’ wrote a corporal watching, ‘he became entangled in the barbed wire and hung there, a living screaming human beacon.’ Sergeant Partridge heard the man’s ‘anguished cries of “Shoot me, shoot me!”’. ‘A single well-aimed bullet from a compassionate but no doubt appalled officer,’ the corporal continued, ‘put the lad out of his blazing hell. Even in death the horror continued as the phosphorus burned into the now mercifully lifeless body.’ Everyone who witnessed the scene was determined never again to carry a phosphorus grenade in their webbing pouches.
An order was given to pull back, but that was not the end of the horror. Some men became lost in the dark on their way down the hill and were shot as they reached the positions of other companies who did not know who they were. The corporal noted that 18 Platoon of D Company had only nine men left out of thirty-six. One of the survivors then shot himself in the foot, because he could not take any more.
The nightmare of Hill 112 continued. The British recaptured it the next day, then the SS seized it back in another counter-attack with Tigers. After the rains of the week before, the temperature had now risen to thirty degrees centigrade and every explosion created clouds of dust. The small wood of chestnut trees was shredded by the British artillery firing airbursts. These were intended to rain splinters down on the defenders. Very soon the wood was reduced to smashed stumps and broken branches, a ‘moon landscape’ as one of the SS put it. On 15 July, the artillery fire was so intense that the panzergrenadiers were forced to withdraw, leaving the Tigers there alone.
All this time, the artillery of the II SS Panzer Corps resorted to the German tactic of sudden intense barrages on the British positions on the north slope of the ridge. The SS gunners, being much further back, did not suffer the same privations as the panzergrenadiers. One battery of the 9th SS Artillerie-Regiment with the Hohenstaufen Division appears to have been adopted by a young Frenchwoman, whom they knew as ‘Mademoiselle Jeanette’. Each day, she used to bring food to the soldiers in the gun line.
Further to the east, German artillery now bombarded the liberated capital of Caen. On 14 July, the Lycée Malherbe and the quarter of Saint-Etienne were hit. People who had refused the British offer of evacuation a few days earlier now rushed for the trucks. An ancient Benedictine nun, who had never stepped outside the convent since her novitiate at the beginning of the century, was astonished to see trucks for the first time in her life, and even more thrilled to ride in one. But civilians trapped behind German lines, who had been sheltering in the damp caves by the village of Fleury, were in a terrible state. SS troops would not allow them out. Their chance of rescue would not come until later in the month.
In Caen, the French authorities and British civil affairs section became increasingly concerned about the danger of cholera. After the destruction of the city, the task of reconnecting the water supply was far harder than even the most pessimistic had imagined. Starving dogs had also become a menace and the préfet issued orders to shoot any found in the streets.
Disturbed by the lack of progress, the Second Army had at last started to sack incompetent or unenergetic commanders. After Epsom, General ‘Pip’ Roberts, the commander of the 11th Armoured Division, replaced a brigade commander and two commanding officers.
On 15 July, Montgomery wrote to Brooke about one of his favourite divisions from North Africa: ‘Regret to report it is considered opinion Crocker, Dempsey and myself that 51st [Highland] Division is at present not - NOT - battleworthy. It does not fight with determination and has failed in every operation it has been given to do.’ Montgomery sacked the commander for weakness and even considered ordering the whole division back to Britain for retraining. Word of their disgrace rapidly spread round the Second Army and soon a letter was sent out instructing officers ‘not to criticise the 51st Highland Division’. Fortunately the new commander, Major General T. G. Rennie, rapidly turned the 51st Highland Division round and restored its morale.
Many more commanders had been battle casualties. The 50th Division had lost two brigadiers, twelve commanding officers and a very high proportion of company officers. Command of 4th Armoured Brigade was given to Brigadier Michael Carver at the age of only twenty-nine, after his predecessor was wounded. Officer casualties were very high. German snipers could identify them easily from their map boards, which gleamed in the sun. Their losses became a vicious circle. While most of the best NCOs had been promoted to command platoons, the rest often showed a lack of initiative. This forced officers to take extra risks to get their men to attack, or they had to stand up conspicuously to stop a panic.
Perhaps the most extreme example of this pattern affected the 6th Battalion of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment. In just over two weeks, the battalion had lost twenty-three officers and 350 NCOs and soldiers. The new commanding officer reported at the end of June that three-quarters of the battalion were ‘jumpy’ as a result of shelling, there were cases of self-inflicted wounds and a high number of shell-shock casualties. ‘The situation has got worse each day as more key personnel have become casualties . . . NCO leadership is weak in most cases and the newly drafted officers are in consequence having to expose themselves unduly to try and get anything done.’ Appalled by the report, Montgomery sacked the new commanding officer, who had been too honest, and disbanded the battalion.
Normandy proved what had hitherto been suspected. Troops bogged down in beachhead and bridgehead battles of attrition suffer a far higher rate of psychological breakdown than in one of movement. Even the retreat of a defeated army seemed to produce fewer cases. On 13 July, 21st Light Field Ambulance reported to General Richard O’Connor, the commander of VIII Corps, that ‘during the 54 hours commencing 1800 hours 10 July 1944, 280 cases of exhaustion were transferred to this unit from the forward area, and it is felt that about 70% of them should not have been evacuated from their units.’ They were no more physically tired than other walking wounded, ‘while their anxiety was not above a normal apprehension of participating in battle’.
Major General G. H. A. Macmillan, the commander of the 15th Scottish Division, reported to O’Connor shortly afterwards: ‘I have now organised a Divisional Exhaustion Centre.’ Altogether 151 had been admitted, of whom forty-one came from a single battalion, ‘which shows that something is wrong in that quarter’. His headquarters issued an instruction to medical officers warning them ‘to be very careful not to send men down the line unless they are absolutely satisfied that the cases are genuine’. He suspected that medical officers, ‘under pressure of work’, had been sending them back ‘merely to get them out of the way’. Any NCO sent back to an exhaustion centre was to be reduced to private soldier automatically. Commanders were also furious at the huge losses of equipment due to demoralized soldiers throwing away their weapons. Desertions and absence without leave increased. No fewer than 150 soldiers from the 50th (Northumberland) Division were convicted of desertion in Normandy, as many as in the whole of the rest of the Second Army.
The formation worst affected by combat fatigue was the 43rd Wessex Division, commanded by Major General Thomas, which had been involved in the battles for Maltot and Hill 112. Tank crews, on the other hand, were much less likely to collapse. ‘The Corps psychiatrist and commander 21 Light Field Ambulance confirm that cases of feigned battle exhaustion by soldiers of Armd Divs are negligible. The main offenders are infantry units. The greatest number of cases come from 43 Division. During 3 or 4 days about 10 July some 360 cases came from that formation. Units particularly affected were 4 Dorsets and 7 Hamps.’ General O’Connor wrote to Thomas about this ‘most serious offence’, ordering him to make it ‘quite clear that anyone found guilty of feigning illness under this heading will be tried by [Field General Court Martial] for desertion’.
Infantrymen appear to have suffered the most because of the effects of German mortars and Nebelwerfer batteries firing concentrated salvoes at unexpected moments. A close miss sent many men into shock. At 129th Infantry Brigade headquarters, three men, including a sergeant major, suffered from battle shock from Nebelwerfer bombardments. ‘Two of them during an attack did not stay in their slit trenches, but just ran around wildly screaming “Get me out of here!”.’ Another contributing factor to the sense of helplessness and disorientation was the lack of information. In the words of one soldier, they suffered from ‘ignorance, stupefying, brutalizing ignorance. You never knew where you were or where the enemy was, or what you were supposed to be attempting to achieve.’
Tank crews appear to have been much less susceptible to combat fatigue, not just because of the protection offered by their armoured vehicle, but also because they were part of closely knit groups. British infantry, just like their American counterparts, suffered from the vulnerability of their replacements. The British system was no more imaginative than the American. A subaltern sent as replacement to the Somerset Light Infantry after its mauling on Hill 112 described how a moustached major at their reinforcement camp near Bayeux addressed the new officers: ‘Gentlemen, your life expectancy from the day you join your battalion, will be precisely three weeks.’