Brittany, as the Allies knew well, was one of the great centres of resistance in France. This was why the first Allied troops to drop in France had been the 2ème Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes just before midnight on 5 June. By the end of June the Gaullist-led Resistance in the FFI and the Communist-led FTP mustered a total of 19,500 men. By the end of July they had 31,500, of whom 13,750 had weapons.
On 4 July, General Koenig, who commanded the FFI from London, had summoned Colonel Eon to his offices in Upper Grosvenor Street. Eon was to command Resistance forces in Brittany. His second in command would be de Gaulle’s chief intelligence officer, André de Wavrin, always known by his codename of Colonel ‘Passy’. They would receive a staff of twenty officers and be supported by nine extra of the three-man Jed burgh teams to help train and direct their forces. Weapons would be provided for 30,000 men. But with the apparent stalemate on both the American and the British fronts at that time, the weapons drops did not receive a high priority.
The American capture of Avranches on 1 August took staffs in London by surprise. Two days later, at 18.00 hours, the BBC gave the coded message to launch guerrilla warfare throughout Brittany. On the morning of 4 August, Koenig took Eon on one side to ask if he would agree to his whole headquarters parachuting together en bloc, whether or not they had undergone parachute training. Eon, who had never made a parachute jump before, agreed and so did the other untrained officers and men. The British authorities, nevertheless, insisted that Eon, as he was being driven to the airfield, should sign ‘a written declaration accepting all responsibility for making a parachute jump without training’. Fortunately, only parachutes attached to arms containers failed to open and the party landed safely. One of the containers held nine million francs. When it was found two miles from the drop zone, one million was already missing.
General Bradley, in contact with Koenig at SHAEF headquarters still back in England, issued an order that all Resistance groups in Brittany now came under the orders of General Patton’s Third Army. They were to protect the railway along the north coast of the Brittany peninsula, to seize the high ground north of Vannes, to provide guides for US forces and to ‘intensify general guerrilla activity, short of open warfare, in all Brittany’. By the time Eon and his party landed, 6,000 members of the FFI had occupied the area north of Vannes and seized the railway line. And on the night of 4 August, a reinforced squadron of 150 French SAS from the 3rd Régiment de Chasseurs Parachutistes dropped behind German lines to protect the railway lines east of Brest on the north side of the peninsula. In fact, the FFI and FTP were to do much more than Bradley asked of them.
Patton’s charge into Brittany with the 6th and 4th Armored Divisions soon became confused, if not chaotic. This was due partly to bad communications. The radio sets were simply not good enough for the distances involved, while Patton and Middleton, the commander of VIII Corps, had utterly different approaches. Patton, the brash yet secretly thin-skinned cavalryman, believed in bold advance and the rapid exploitation of any opportunity. Middleton was an excellent corps commander, but he was an infantryman. Every advance in his book needed to be carefully planned. He was unprepared for Patton’s style of warfare.
Patton’s thinking was shared by General John Wood of the 4th Armored Division, ‘a second General Patton if I ever saw one,’ observed an officer in the 8th Infantry Division. Wood, ‘a brawny, jovial type’, was equally immune to indecision. From Pontaubault, he dashed south to the regional capital of Rennes. The city was too strongly held for him to take without infantry, so early on 3 August he circled it to the south, waiting for reinforcements and more fuel. His instinct was to head for Angers and then Paris, but he knew that that would alarm Middleton.
In Rennes itself, mixed groups of German troops, mainly remnants of the 91st Luftlande-Division, prepared their escape and destroyed equipment and files. Meanwhile the American 8th Infantry Division had arrived and began to bombard the city. Members of the French Resistance had slipped through the lines and told them of the exact position of Gestapo headquarters in Rennes. They did not say that it was just opposite the hospital where American and British prisoners of war were held, but fortunately there were few injuries. Other members of the Resistance, on spotting the hurried departure of the Gestapo, raided the headquarters and took the food there to feed the malnourished prisoners. That night, another FFI group blew up a German munitions dump just outside the town. A French doctor then reached the Americans outside the town with news of the prisoners and the 8th Division artillery ceased shelling.
The German troops slipped away during the night towards Saint-Nazaire, at the mouth of the Loire. The only ones who stayed behind were ‘a handful of drunks’. They were easily rounded up by the American infantry on 4 August, ‘but they had to be protected from the French’. The remaining population - some 60,000 out of 120,000 - surged on to the streets to welcome the Americans, who rushed medical units to the hospital. ‘One paratrooper patient with a bad face wound came up and shook my hands and cried,’ a captain reported. Soldiers immediately gave whatever they could, including their own combat kit, to those whose uniforms had fallen to pieces.
Middleton, back at VIII Corps headquarters, faced a difficult choice. He sympathized with Wood’s desire to strike east, but his instructions remained to capture the ports on the coast of Brittany and he was not in contact with Patton. Middleton drove to see Wood and sent the 4th Armored Division back south-westwards to take Vannes and then Lorient. Vannes fell rapidly, but Lorient appeared impregnable.
On 4 August, Patton himself, escorted by an armoured car, drove down into Brittany. He was following the advance of the 6th Armored Division commanded by Major General Grow, whom he had ordered to rush for Brest, the main port of Brittany, bypassing all resistance. Patton whooped with joy every time they ran off a map and had to open a new one. This was warfare as he loved it. But Patton had not told Middleton the objective he had given the 6th Armored. Grow then received a signal from Middleton, ordering him not to bypass Saint-Malo, on the north coast of the peninsula, and to attack it the next day. Grow requested that the order should be cancelled, but Middleton was firm.
Grow was about to sit down with a cup of coffee outside his tent in a wheatfield, when Patton suddenly appeared. ‘What in hell are you doing sitting here?’ he demanded. ‘I thought I told you to get to Brest.’ Grow explained his order from Middleton and his chief of staff produced the written order. Patton read it, then folded it up. ‘And he was a good doughboy, too,’ Patton murmured to himself. ‘I’ll see Middleton,’ he said to Grow. ‘You go ahead where I told you to go.’
The confusion continued, but Patton settled the problem of communicating with divisions spread out over hundreds of miles. He allocated the 6th Cavalry Group to report on the exact position of all his divisions and armoured columns as well as on the enemy. Its thirteen reconnaissance platoons, each with six armoured cars and six quarter-ton trucks, had high-powered radios which could also act as a back-up if the Signal Corps network failed. The 6th Cavalry was soon known as ‘General Patton’s Household Cavalry’.
The advance of the 6th Armored Division towards Brest was hardly unopposed. Groups of German stragglers and improvised combat groups fought delaying actions. During daylight hours, the columns had support from Mustangs of the 363rd Fighter Group, but ‘every night from 3 August to 6 August we had to fight for our bivouac areas,’ reported Captain Donley from the 6th Armored. On 5 August, the town of Huelgoat was reported to be clear, so General Grow rode in with a tank and an armoured car. He was greeted with ‘intense small arms fire from all directions’. Donley’s company of armoured infantry was sent to get him out, supported by tanks. The German paratroopers in the town were now trapped. The armoured infantry accounted for many of them, but the FFI begged to be allowed to finish the rest off. They claimed that ‘the paratroopers had cut off the hands of a woman’ and the FFI ‘was mighty anxious to mop them up’.
The 6th Armored put the FFI into reconnaissance Jeeps, known as ‘Peeps’, to lead the way. And the leading tank battalion placed sandbags on the front of their Shermans to absorb the blast of 50 mm anti-tank rounds. If a village was deserted, it usually meant that the Germans were there: ‘The first thing we did was to blow off the church steeple in order to get rid of possible [observation posts] and sniper fire.’
With German stragglers roaming the countryside behind their advance, Jeeps had to dash through like the ‘pony express’. Snipers and bands of Germans desperate for food tried to ambush supply vehicles. ‘The trucks were like a band of stage-coaches making a run through Indian country.’ Replacements coming forward to join their units found that they had to be ready to fight just to get there. The Americans asked the FFI to do what they could to guard their lines of communication.
Patton was faintly dismissive of the French Resistance. He later said that their help was ‘better than expected and less than advertised’. Yet their contribution in Brittany was indeed considerable. ‘They aided in loading heavy ammunition,’ an officer with the 6th Armored reported, ‘and they cleared snipers, while our columns kept going.’ They also secured bridges, provided intelligence and harassed Germans at every turn. On 6 August, a German report to Kluge’s headquarters complained that the American advance on Brest was carried out ‘with the help of terrorists’. General Koenig back in London was labelled the ‘Terroristenführer’, and the following day the Germans reported ‘battles with terrorists everywhere’. German reprisals became predictably violent, with two massacres on the Finisterre peninsula near Brest. Twenty-five civilians were shot in St Pol-de-Léon on 4 August, and forty-two men, women and children in Gouesnou were killed by sailors of the 3rd Marineflakbrigade on 7 August.
On 6 August, Colonel Eon’s force secured the surrender of a battalion of Osttruppen at Saint-Brieuc. But when Eon and Passy returned to their headquarters exhausted that evening, their camp was attacked by 250 Germans from the 2nd Paratroop Division. After six hours of fighting they managed to force them back. Passy and a small group were surrounded, but they eventually fought their way out. When they met up with the rest of the headquarters group they heard that their loss had been reported to London. But soon the FFI and FTP attacks forced the Germans to withdraw into coastal towns, which could be more easily defended. Further south, other FFI detachments helped Wood’s 4th Armored Division, even clearing a minefield by hand.
Grow’s leading troops approached Brest on 6 August. After some wildly excessive optimism that the city would surrender to a show of force, Grow soon had to accept that an armoured division was incapable of seizing a major fortified city. He did not know that the commander of ‘Fortress Brest’ was General der Fallschirmtruppen Hermann Ramcke, a ruthless paratroop veteran who had sworn to Hitler that he would defend the city to the last.60 Grow then found he was being attacked from behind by the German 266th Infanterie-Division, which had been trying to join the large garrison in Brest. His forces soon dealt with them, but Brest proved far too great an obstacle, as Patton rapidly appreciated.
The 8th Infantry Division came up to help the 6th Armored. Their tasks included night patrols to prevent large German foraging parties, sometimes up to 150 strong, from seizing food from French farmers. The FFI came begging for arms and gasoline, but they were also bringing in prisoners. The 8th had to set up a stockade to hold 600 of them. One of their officers was very pleased ‘to get a Hermann Goering ceremonial dagger off one of the paratroopers’. The 8th Infantry hardly knew what to expect in this very unconventional quarter of the war. At one moment a British special forces officer who had been dropped behind enemy lines turned up wanting fuel, the next they found themselves embroiled in French political rivalries. Two quite senior French officers turned up in uniform, offering their services, but the members of the Resistance who had been helping the Americans insisted angrily that they would never work with them. They were what they called ‘moth-balls’: those who had served under the Vichy regime and now brought their uniforms out of the closet as soon as the Allies appeared. The Americans ‘courteously got rid of the old officers’.
Liberation also presented its two faces. ‘The townspeople were so nice to us that I had a hell of a time keeping my men sober,’ a lieutenant reported. American troops found the civilians to be much more friendly in Brittany than in Normandy. But they also witnessed its much uglier side of vengeance against women accused of collaboration horizontale with the Germans. ‘We had a hair-cutting party,’ the lieutenant added. ‘Several girls were in addition kicked in the stomach and had to be hospitalized.’
For the Americans, especially the 6th Armored Division, the Brittany campaign ended in anticlimax. They were left besieging Brest, Saint-Nazaire and Lorient, where the 6th took over from Wood’s 4th Armored, but in fact there was little danger of a sally by any of the garrisons. The FFI battalions, with some American support, were quite capable of keeping the Germans bottled up. Meanwhile the 83rd Infantry Division, which had battered away at Saint-Malo because the force there threatened the rear of operations in Brittany, finally achieved its surrender.
Bradley was well aware of the frustrating situation, but the siege of Brest, although now pointless strategically, had become a matter of pride. ‘I would not say this to anyone but you,’ he confessed to Patton, ‘and [I] have given different excuses to my staff and higher echelons, but we must take Brest in order to maintain the illusion of the fact that the US Army cannot be beaten.’ Patton agreed strongly with this view. ‘Any time we put our hand to a job we must finish it,’ he noted in his diary. Yet both Patton and Bradley had their eyes on the open flank north of the River Loire which led all the way to Orléans and Paris.
Patton could see only too clearly that Brittany was going to be a backwater. He welcomed Bradley’s new order to send Haislip’s XV Corps south-east to Le Mans and Walker’s XX Corps down towards Angers on the Loire, ready to protect their right flank when they turned east. Glory lay towards the Seine.
One of the divisions destined for Haislip’s corps had only just landed on Utah beach. This was the French 2nd Armored Division, which would become famous in France as the Deuxième Division Blindée, or the 2ème DB. It was indeed an extraordinary formation commanded by a remarkable man.
General Comte Philippe de Hautecloque was better known by his nom de guerre of ‘Leclerc’ to avoid German reprisals against his family. He was a devout Catholic of the ancien régime. As chaplains, he had recruited a dozen members of the White Fathers, an order set up in the nineteenth century originally to take Christianity to the Tuaregs. Led by Père Houchet, they were dressed in white habits and wore flowing beards.
Leclerc, a tall, slim man, with crinkly eyes and a rectangular military moustache, was instantly recognizable to his men by the tank goggles round his kepi and the malacca cane he always carried. They revered him for his bravery, his determination and his skill in battle. An austere man, he was acutely patriotic. Like de Gaulle, he felt bitter that, since the disaster of 1940, the British had accumulated so much more power while France had declined dramatically. Both were inclined to suspect that the British took every opportunity to exploit this. In their resentment, they could not see that Britain, despite her apparent strength, had bankrupted herself, physically and economically, during five years of war. It was an unfortunate detail that part of the division had sailed to Britain from Mers-el-Kebir, where Admiral Somerville’s battle squadron had sunk the French fleet in 1940 to prevent it falling into German hands. ‘Even for us Gaullists,’ wrote a young officer, ‘it weighed heavily on our hearts.’
De Gaulle regarded Leclerc and his division as the incarnation of the spirit of Free France. Its ranks included officers and soldiers of every political opinion. Alongside arch-Catholics of la vieille France, Communists, monarchists, socialists, republicans and even some Spanish anarchists, all served well together. This encouraged de Gaulle to believe that somehow post-war France could achieve a similar solidarity, but he was to be sorely disappointed.
It was the Americans, with their military-industrial cornucopia, who had clothed, equipped, armed and trained the 2ème DB (Americans were later irritated when French civilians asked them why the US Army did not have ‘a uniform different from ours’.) Leclerc, despite his old-fashioned views, was no reactionary when it came to warfare. He felt an immediate affinity with Patton and Wood. Patton was keen to help Leclerc, and the French armoured division would not disappoint him in the battles ahead. But de Gaulle’s intention to use the 2ème DB to further French interests above Allied priorities would prove a source of conflict with other American generals.
For the soldiers of the division, the moment of landing in France on 1 August was intensely emotional. The sea had been rough and a few were sick into their helmets, like their American predecessors nearly two months before. British sailors, seeing the condoms on rifle muzzles, made predictable jokes about ‘Free French letters’. Almost all of those coming ashore had not seen their country for four years or more. Some scooped up handfuls of sand on Utah beach to preserve in jars. News of the arrival of French troops spread quickly on the Cotentin peninsula, and soon 100 young men volunteered to serve in its ranks. In ten days, they would go into battle for the first time.
While Patton’s two armoured divisions were charging into Brittany, the British continued with Operation Bluecoat. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division advanced brilliantly towards the town of Vire, with infantry mounted on tanks. Armoured cars of the 2nd Household Cavalry were halted at one village by the mayor running out, waving his arms. Ahead they saw the road covered with pieces of paper. The inhabitants had watched the Germans lay mines, then as soon as they left they had rushed out to mark each one.
The 11th Armoured still had to contend with the arrival of the II SS Panzer Corps on their left flank. As soon as enemy tanks were sighted, the infantry leaped off. Sergeant Kite of the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment later described the moment of death for his tank when he was severely wounded. ‘Over in the next field the outlines of two Panthers appeared. The wheat had grown high and was almost ripe. Each time they fired the shells cut a narrow furrow through the ears of corn. One of [the Panthers] was knocked out. Suddenly the gun of the other turned and pointed in my direction. I saw the muzzle flash as it fired and the corn bending down along the line of flight of the shell that was about to hit us.’
On 2 August, 11th Armoured was poised to take Vire, when suddenly Montgomery ordered Roberts to turn his division east. Instead of taking Vire, he was to cut the road east from the town and occupy the Perrier ridge. The boundary between the British and American armies had been changed. Vire was to be an American objective. It is still not clear whether Montgomery feared that the division might be cut off by a German counter-attack or he was acceding to an American request.
In any case Meindl, alarmed by the threat to Vire which was virtually undefended, quickly brought up a newly arrived division to fill the gap. Then, because it was untried, he stiffened it with his 9th Paratroop Regiment and 12th Artillery Battalion. He also brought forward two batteries of 88 mm flak guns to deal with the British tanks turning east. The tragedy of Montgomery’s decision, a subject which he tried to avoid after the war, was not just the lost opportunity. Meindl’s reinforcements were in place by the time the Americans put in their attack on the town four days later and they suffered heavy casualties.
The American 5th Infantry Division, advancing just to the right of Roberts’s division, had begun to be squeezed into a narrower sector when Roberts seized the opportunity offered by the capture of ‘Dickie’s bridge’. Like the British, they too had encountered difficult hilly country and woods. It was a curious advance, with bouts of intense fighting, then moments of uneasy calm. The commander of one company described a strange experience as they advanced along a forest track. ‘The woods seemed to cast an eerie spell over us as though we were the subjects of a fairy enchantment,’ he wrote. He and his men suddenly heard a soft, gentle clapping. ‘As we came closer we could see the shadowy forms of French men and women and children, lining the roadway, not talking, some crying softly, but most just gently clapping, extending for several hundred feet on both sides of the road. A little girl came alongside me. She was blonde, pretty and maybe all of five years old. She trustingly put her hand in mine and walked a short way with me, then stopped and waved until we were out of sight.’ Even fifty years later he could still hear the sound of soft clapping in a wood.
The 5th and 35th Infantry Divisions were then transferred to Patton’s Third Army, and Vire was left to the 29th Division from XIX Corps. The American attack did not begin until dusk on 6 August, four days after Montgomery turned Roberts’s 11th Armoured away from the town. Vire, an ancient town on a rocky hill, had already been partly destroyed by bombing on D-Day itself. Meindl’s reinforcements gave a menacing assurance to the civilians who remained: ‘We’ll defend your town house by house.’ The American 29th Division faced a hard fight through the ruins.
While VIII Corps had advanced well on the right flank, Bucknall’s XXX Corps’s progress remained slow. Dempsey had warned Bucknall on the first evening of the offensive that he must push on faster for Aunay-sur-Odon. That section of the front was heavily mined, but this was not accepted as an excuse. On the following evening Dempsey sacked him, with Montgomery’s full support. To replace Bucknall, Montgomery summoned from England Lieutenant General Sir Brian Horrocks, who had now recovered from wounds received in North Africa. Over the next two days, Dempsey also sacked Major General Erskine of the 7th Armoured Division and Brigadier ‘Loony’ Hinde. The 7th Armoured were shaken by the loss of their commander. ‘Everyone very depressed,’ a staff officer wrote in his diary. ‘It didn’t seem the way to treat the captor of Tripoli.’ But most senior officers felt that Dempsey should have wielded the axe after the Villers-Bocage fiasco in June. In any event, the arrival of Horrocks was widely welcomed.
A large part of the problem with the XXX Corps attack lay with the 50th Northumbrian and the 43rd Wessex Divisions. Their men were exhausted. Many were weak from dysentery and suffering from boils. They were also suffering from dehydration, since water, brought up in bowsers at night, was severely rationed. When the British attacked across a ripe cornfield, the Germans would sometimes fire incendiary shells and ‘the wretched wounded would get burned alive’. But the Allies could hardly complain, considering their use of white phosphorus and flame-throwing tanks.
Only a handful of experienced men were left in each platoon. The rest were all replacements. The padres were among the hardest-worked, evacuating the wounded and carrying out brief funeral services during the hours of darkness. ‘I could not help thinking of the line of poetry from the Burial of Sir John Moore,’ wrote the chaplain with the 4th Dorsets. “‘We buried him darkly, at the dead of night”.’
Under pressure from their commanders, the infantry battalions of XXX Corps kept pushing forward, taking a flattened Villers-Bocage, Jurques and Ondefontaine. Those August days were not pleasant for tank crews either. ‘In the small fields of Normandy among the cider orchards,’ wrote a tank commander, ‘every move during the hot summer brought showers of small hard sour apples cascading into the turrets through the open hatches. After a few days there might be enough to jam the turret. Five men in close proximity, three in the turret and two below in the driving compartment, all in a thick metal oven, soon produced a foul smell: humanity, apples, cordite and heat.’ Their heads throbbed with noise: ‘the perpetual “mush” through the earphones twenty-four hours each day, and through it the machinery noises, the engine as background, with the whine of the turret [mechanism] and the thud and rattle of the guns as an accompaniment’.
Stanley Christopherson, commanding the Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, was well aware of the strain on his men. ‘To be the leading tank of the leading troop of the leading squadron of the leading regiment of the leading brigade, with an axis of advance along a narrow lane leading into a village known to be held by enemy armour and infantry was then, as at all times, a most unattractive position. It almost invariably resulted in your tank being brewed up by an anti-tank gun or enemy tank which had seen you first. It must have been equally unpleasant for the leading infantry, but they could at least dive into a ditch and make themselves small, but not even the Almighty could diminish the size of a Sherman tank waddling down a narrow lane.’
Yet often the Germans allowed the first tank through, or even several, before opening fire. ‘It was a lovely morning and the sun was just about to break through and scatter the mist which surrounded the countryside,’ Christopherson wrote of 3 August. ‘We passed through the village of Jurques without meeting opposition, but the trouble started in La Bigne, a tiny village a little further on, when my two following tanks were knocked out.’ A newly arrived troop leader was killed instantly in one of them. ‘One of the burning tanks completely blocked the road and prevented any movement either way. However Sergeant Guy Saunders, displaying his usual calm and utter disregard for his own safety, jumped into the tank and drove it into the ditch, thus clearing the way. It was a most gallant action, especially as the shells in the fighting compartment had started to explode.’
Officers in the Guards Armoured Division did what they could to mitigate the discomforts of tank warfare, even if that meant taking a less than Guards-like attitude to dress regulations. With their pale brown tank suits, they began to wear silk scarves to mask their faces from the dust, and leather wellington boots from Gieves, ‘because they slip on and off easily’. A number of officers, disliking the army-issue sleeping bags, obtained a more comfortable version from Fortnum & Mason. The headquarters of the 6th Guards Tank Brigade also benefited from the foresight of their catering officer, Terence O’Neill, later prime minister for Northern Ireland. He had brought a flock of poultry and cages over from England ‘in the recesses of a LST’. His cousin, Jock Colville, who was Churchill’s private secretary, had dined with them just before Goodwood. ‘The Brigade of Guards,’ he noted in his diary, ‘as magnificent fighters as any in the world, saw no virtue in austerity on active service.’
Since Goodwood, the Guards Armoured had also greatly improved its infantry-tank cooperation. This had been helped by the installation of a handset on the back of a tank. The telephone allowed an infantry officer to talk directly to the tank commander, without having to climb on to the turret under enemy fire to direct the troop on to an enemy position. But a captain in the 5th Coldstream, who cranked the telephone wildly while bullets whistled around him, did not appreciate the compulsive flippancy of his brother officer from the 1st Battalion inside the Sherman: ‘The tank commander would always say on picking up his handset: “Sloane 4929”. Funny for him, but not so bloody funny for me.’
The Germans fought their deadly ambush battles with small combat teams, usually a scratch company of panzergrenadiers grouped around an assault gun. Yet German morale was suffering under the onslaught. Feldgendarmerie detachments at bridges seized stragglers and hanged them from trees nearby to act as a deterrent to others tempted by the idea of desertion.
The chaplain attached to the 4th Dorsets spoke to one of their prisoners called Willi, ‘a little German stretcher-bearer, a studious looking lad with glasses’. He could not understand why the British did not break through with all their artillery and tanks. German soldiers, he said, were waiting for the chance to surrender, provided their officers and NCOs were not looking. ‘Then it is a pity,’ the chaplain replied, ‘that several of your comrades came out with their hands up and then threw grenades at our men.’ The young German’s lip trembled, ‘and he looked as if he were going break into childish tears at this betrayal by his fellow-countrymen’. Like other captured medical orderlies, Willi impressed British doctors with his skill and willingness, helping both British and German wounded while still under mortar fire. Yet despite the chaplain’s lecture about German soldiers breaking the rules of war, the British frequently killed SS soldiers out of hand. ‘Many of them probably deserve to be shot in any case and know it,’ a XXX Corps report stated baldly.
While some parts of the countryside seemed to have been virtually untouched by war, in others the scenes of destruction were terrible. Almost everyone who saw the large village of Aunay-sur-Odon was shocked to the core. The place had been bombed several times from 11 June and was now smashed again by XXX Corps artillery. ‘Apart from the church spire and three shells of houses it is razed to the ground,’ a cavalry officer noted in his diary. An artillery officer was appalled by his own part in it. ‘You really had to disassociate yourself from that because there was no way you could carry out your military duties,’ he observed later. ‘The only thing you could do was to shell and hope to God the French had gone away.’
The survival of civilians in towns ruined by bombing and shellfire always seemed a miracle. André Heintz, from the Resistance in Caen, had followed the mine-clearing teams to the ruins of Villers-Bocage. There he saw German and British tanks smashed into each other from the battle in June. He described them as an ‘imbroglio of steel’. At the Château de Villers on the edge of the town, he found that the local mayor, the Vicomte de Rugy, had sheltered 200 people in a tunnel-like cellar under the building. They were in a ‘pathetic’ state. In another small town, a soldier from the 4th Somerset Light Infantry went off to relieve himself. His hobnailed army boots slipped when crossing a pile of rubble. As he fell, his hand encountered something soft. It was the severed hand of a girl. Just then came the call from their patrol commander: ‘Fall in you lads, it’s time to move on.’ All he could do was scratch a cross on the slab and RIP.
Soldiers, often sentimental about animals, were also touched by the plight of abandoned livestock. Unmilked cows were in agony. They stood still to avoid the pain of any movement which would make their udders swing. Those from farming backgrounds would milk them straight on to the ground to ease the pressure. A medical officer was also moved by a sad scene: ‘a little foal walking in a small circle round his recently killed mother. He had worn a path in the grass and refused to leave her.’
While the 11th Armoured Division on the right continued to fight off the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg east of Vire on the Perrier ridge, and the Guards Armoured crushed in the shoulder of the German front, XXX Corps finally approached Mont Pinçon. The infantry mounted on tanks were nearly choked by the thick red dust which now coated the scrub.
The attack was scheduled for Monday, 6 August. Many soldiers and NCOs remarked on the fact that it was Bank Holiday Monday back in England. The thought conjured up images of their families and the seaside, but they were given little time to daydream. The aggressive Major General Thomas of the 43rd Wessex Division continued to exert maximum pressure on his subordinates, as the commanding officer of one of their supporting armoured regiments noted: ‘Brigade and battalion commanders in the 43rd Division were somewhat fearful of Von Thoma, who at the same time infuriated them, as he insisted on “fighting their battles” and would not leave them alone after the final operational orders had been issued.’
Julius Neave, commanding a squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars, was resigned to another hard battle: ‘Our intention is to capture M[ont].P[inçon] - the biggest feature in Normandy - with a very depleted infantry brigade and a tired armoured regiment.’ Even during their orders group at brigade headquarters they found themselves under a ‘fierce stonk’ from German mortars.
The infantry were even more depressed by the prospect. ‘The nearer we got to our objective,’ wrote Corporal Proctor, ‘the more awesome our task appeared. The lower slopes were cultivated farmland divided into small fields by huge hedgerows. Higher up was woodland. The top appeared to be covered in gorse. Out of sight over the brow of the hill were German radar installations and these had to be destroyed. At the foot of the hill was a small stream we would have to cross.’ The day was oppressively hot.
The artillery barrage began at 15.00 hours. The 4th Somersets advanced on the left and the 5th Battalion of the Wiltshire Regiment on the right. About 100 yards beyond the stream, they came under heavy machine-gun fire from the flanks and in front. All the leading companies were pinned down. Some broke back to seek shelter under the bank of the stream, but it became crowded. ‘It was soon obvious that too many people were seeking too little protection,’ wrote Sergeant Partridge with the Somersets. The Somersets and Wiltshires expected the Germans to run out of ammunition, but the rate of fire never seemed to slacken. The Wiltshires were hard hit and their commanding officer killed.
Partridge’s company sergeant major had his nose shot off. As he staggered back holding a field dressing to his face, Partridge helped him to the regimental aid post near battalion headquarters. There he heard that Major Thomas, the commander of B Company, had been killed while single-handedly rushing a German machine gun. ‘Very gallant,’ observed Partridge, ‘but I had long since learned that dead soldiers do not win battles, and my prime duty was to stay alive and preserve the lives of as many others as possible.’
A sharp order arrived from their commanding officer saying that there were too many NCOs back at the aid post. ‘Please rejoin your troops.’ Partridge acknowledged that it was a well-deserved rebuke. He returned to 17 Platoon to find ‘four fellows in an abandoned trench crying their eyes out’. These newcomers were not striplings, but men in their late thirties - ‘far too old to live our kind of life’. They came from a disbanded anti-aircraft unit and had been sent forward without infantry training as part of the desperate attempt to man front-line battalions.
Shortly before dusk, a Sherman of the 13th/18th managed to cross the stream and give covering fire, but the German machine-gun positions were well camouflaged. A different plan was adopted. Once darkness fell, the companies were reorganized. They began to move forward behind a smokescreen in single file as silently as possible. Each man’s equipment was checked to make sure that nothing would rattle.
Never believing that they would get through unobserved or unheard, they continued to move up the slope. They could hear German voices on either side, but fortunately never stumbled on to one of the machine-gun positions. The first two companies of the 4th Somersets made it to the plateau and were soon followed by the other two. They tried to dig in, ready for the inevitable German counter-attack, but found the ground was rock hard.
Sergeant Partridge then heard what sounded like a Panther or Tiger tank. He sent a whispered message to the anti-tank man to bring over the PIAT launcher, but the soldier was apologetic. The PIAT had been too heavy to carry up the hill and he had left it behind. Partridge showed great self-control by not strangling him on the spot. In fact, the tank which caused them such alarm in the dark almost certainly belonged to the 13th/18th Hussars, one of whose squadrons had found a route up the side of Mont Pinçon earlier in the night. In the confusion, they do not seem to have known that the infantry had already arrived, and they were radioing for support. Their commanding officer sent up another squadron, while urgently demanding infantry reinforcements.
By the morning of 7 August, the most dominant feature in Normandy was finally in British hands. In fact, the Germans had melted away. Their withdrawal formed part of a desperately needed attempt to shorten their lines, partly to make up for the transfer of the 1st SS Panzer-Division for the counter-attack being prepared at Mortain.
Bluecoat had been the climax to a bitter battle on both sides. The 4th Somersets had lost ‘more men in five weeks than in the following nine months’ up to the end of the war. Further west towards Vire, the 10th SS Panzer-Division Frundsberg had been ground down by the 11th Armoured and the Guards Armoured. Eberbach’s headquarters had reported the night before ‘heavy enemy attacks along almost the whole front’. In a final effort, the Frundsberg had counter-attacked the 11th Armoured south of Presles, hoping to close the gap between the Seventh Army and Panzer Group West.
The next day, when on Hitler’s order Panzer Group West officially became the Fifth Panzer Army, Eberbach reported that there were just ‘three tanks still serviceable’ in the 10th SS Panzer-Division. He had to withdraw it from the line. The ‘fighting spirit’ of his army was ‘unsatisfactory’ as a result of ‘losses, withdrawals and exhaustion’. There was no question of the II Panzer Corps, or the 12th SS Hitler Jugend, or the 21st Panzer-Division being withdrawn for the counter-attack at Mortain. Even Kluge warned that ‘it was already a grave decision to take away the 1st SS Panzer-Division’. That day, Army Group B reported that since the invasion they had suffered 151,487 casualties, dead, wounded and missing. They had received fewer than 20,000 replacements.