It is well to remember that many great battles of history occurred not in isolation but as the culmination of campaigns. Nor did the combatants very often turn up rested and fresh, full of enthusiasm for the day ahead. On the morning of 18 July, 1944, most of the troops preparing for battle had been in action for weeks. Even those who had not previously seen combat had endured a gruelling approach to the coming battle.
CROSSING THE ORNE
In the early minutes of 6 June, the only crossing over the Caen Canal and the Orne River between Caen and the sea was seized in one of the outstanding airborne operations of military history. Major John Howard’s 2nd Oxf and Bucks glider-borne light infantry secured the defended bridge at Bénouville and held the crossing until the main force of 6th Airborne Divison arrived. Howard’s task was not only to deny the crossings to the Germans for counterattacks against the invasion’s eastern flank, but also to preserve the bridges intact for future use. From early in the OVERLORD planning, it was felt that the only way to secure the flanks to the eastern landing beaches was to place an airborne division east of the twin waterways. So the bridges would be needed to sustain 6th Airborne Division after its drop to the east. This was done. The bridges were preserved; German attempts to break through were prevented.
Major Howard’s glider landed just forty-seven yards short of the objective.
Vorpostenboot sunk in the Caen Canal.
By 6 June, only two serviceable crossings remained available to the Germans in the Caen sector: the railway crossing between Calix and Mondeville (half way between the metal works and the main railway station, just beside the massive present day viaduct of the Autoroute de Normandie); and the single surviving road bridge between Vaucelles and Caen, battered but still just passable.1 Late in the morning of 6 June, Oberst Hermann von Oppeln-Bronnikowski received orders from the dynamic LXXXIV Armeekorpscommander General Marcks. Impatient with the slow response to the invasion, Marcks redirected Oppeln’s 22. Panzerregiment away from the Bénouville bridgehead. Instead, his armoured regiment was to lead an armoured thrust through Caen towards the invasion breaches. Around midday his leading elements attempted to cross at the Vaucelles bridge. As they pushed through the rubble-strewn boulevards of Vaucelles, they were caught bunched around the crossing by an air bombardment which caused further damage to the bridge and considerable disruption to the advance. Thereafter, the Panzer battalions passed Caen only by lengthy detours: I. Bataillon looping wide around the west of the city while II. Bataillon went east, crossing the railway bridge situated two kilometres down the river, by the Mondeville abbatoir, to struggle forward around the eastern side of the city. The consequence of the confusion and delay was that the only German armoured force to reach the landing beaches on D Day arrived late on the scene. Only one small detachment of six tanks reached Sword Beach about 20.00 hours, too few to influence events or even to dwell long in so exposed a position.
Soon after D Day it became clear that sustaining the Orne bridgehead would require more than the lone pair of bridges at Bénouville. Between 8 and 9 June, 71 Field Company, Royal Engineers completed a second crossing, codenamed LONDON. A pontoon bridge was thrown across the Caen Canal about 600 metres south of the Pegasus Bridge at Bénouville, another almost alongside the ‘pont tournant’ (formerly a swing bridge) over the Orne River at Ranville. Between the two was a third, linking bridge over the intervening small watercourse. These were memorable constructions: they represented the first of 1,500 Bailey Bridges to be completed in the course of the campaign for northwest Europe.2
ROADS AND BRIDGES
Preparatory to GOODWOOD further crossings were constructed, and still more were planned. The original Pegasus Bridge crossing (now codenamed EUSTON) was planked over and reinforced to Class 40 standard. A thousand metres to the north, a new pair of Bailey Bridges was constructed, these codenamed YORK. YORK 1 crossed the canal at le Camp Romain and YORK 2 the river at la Haute Écard. Like the Bénouville bridges, these too were capable of bearing tanks, making a total of three Class 40 crossings each served by separate lanes for wheeled and tracked vehicles. These lanes, intended solely for VIII Corps traffic, were constructed differently for wheeled or tracked use. The construction of these six parallel roadways leading to the bridges was a huge engineering enterprise, completed between 13 July and last light on 16 July. The engineering resources of 2nd Army, VIII Corps, and even some divisional Royal Engineers were called upon. The tracks east of the river were built by I Corps. Forward of the start line, individual divisions would be responsible for engineering their own thoroughfares. Likely routes, especially those in use by German wheeled vehicles, were identified from aerial photographs, although the effect of the planned bombing was an unknown factor giving some cause for concern.
Constructing LONDON Bridge, the first Bailey bridge in France.
To the west of the Caen Canal, the six parallel approaches were codenamed, north to south: RAT, CAT, and CALF for tracks; A, B, and C for wheels. East of the Orne, the equivalent routes were: PALM tracks and PALM wheels; HOLLY tracks and HOLLY wheels; and BRIAR tracks and BRIAR wheels.3
Even three Class 40 crossings were manifestly not going to be enough. I Corps, who held responsibility for the construction and maintenance of the crossings, planned to construct a further two crossings between the start of the battle and the end of the first day. The northern pair of bridges (TOWER 1 and 2) would cross the Caen Canal north of the Ouistreham lighthouse, and the Orne near la Basse Écarde. The southern pair (TAY 1 and 2) were to cross the canal south of Blainville-sur-Orne, and the river between Longueval and St-Léonard. Still further south, engineers of II Canadian Corps would repair or rebuild bridges over the river between Caen and Vaucelles, ‘as soon as the situation permits’. But so long as this stretch of the Orne remained under enemy fire, any Canadians seeking to cross the river dry-shod would have to take their turn over the British bridges to the north.
By mid July, the three armoured divisions composing VIII Corps were dispersed within the Normandy bridgehead. On receipt of orders, all three began hasty preparations to be ready for action east of the Orne on 18 July. Units were to reach their starting positions ‘without being detected by the enemy and without interfering with the operations and maintenance of the rest of the Army.’ This was a tall order.
Any repositioning of divisional-scale units within the narrow confines of the crowded Normandy bridgehead presented major problems. Relocating a 1944 British armoured division with around 15,000 men and 3,500 vehicles was never an easy task. In this case, although the distances appeared small on the map – barely fifteen miles – the difficulties involved would be greater than ever. Roads or even useful tracks running from west to east were few. Caen itself was still an almost impenetrable mass of rubble, only recently abandoned by the Germans, while much of the area between Caen and the sea had recently been a hotly contested battleground. The passage between the north side of Caen and the sea crossed numerous troop concentrations: rest and holding camps, supply depots, airfields and their construction units, artillery emplacements. The route ran across supply lines: by early July the substantial damage caused to the Arromanches ‘MULBERRY’ harbour in the June storms was being offset by the fortunate capability of numerous small ports to receive unexpected volumes of seaborne supplies. Consequently, numerous coastal villages along the ‘Côte de Nacre’ (Normandy’s ‘pearly’ coastline) became sources of vital supplies which had to be transported south. The three armoured divisions would have to pass at right angles across the supply lines of two front-line corps: II Canadian and I British.
11th Armoured would lead. From encampments midway between Caen and Bayeux, the respective headquarters of the division and of 29th Armoured Brigade plus the whole of 159th (Infantry) Brigade were to set off on the night of 16-17 July. Using the two southerly pairs of bridges, they would establish themselves in the bridgehead. 29th Brigade’s Motor Infantry Battalion and three armoured regiments would follow, ending the night concealed about 7,000 yards west of the crossings. Their night drive proved difficult.
Major Bill Close of 3rd Royal Tank Regiment recalls the first leg of the journey on the night of 16-17 July.
As anticipated, our night move proved to be horrendous, moving nose to tail along dusty winding tracks, tank commanders peering with bleary eyes out of their turrets, trying to maintain station on the tank in front.
Close warned his tank commanders of the ‘dire consequences’ of dozing off; but most managed to arrive at the holding points around 01.00 hours without undue incident.4 Finally arriving in the assembly area, it seemed to Bill Close ‘that 3rd RTR reached its concentration area as much by luck as judgement’. In a little wood between Périers-sur-le-Dan and Beuville (still there today, on the western side of the D222) they ‘camouflaged ourselves... We were told to stay out of sight and get as much rest as possible’.5
A 23rd Hussars officer recalls similar experiences on the night of 16 July, after 1 Troop, C Squadron received orders to move at last light, about 23.30.
At about eleven, the engines started rousing into life, and after what seemed an interminable delay, the whole Regiment was on the move, bound eastwards. The roads were thick with dust and within a few seconds the tank in front was merely the dim outline of the Commander’s head floating on a cloud of fine grey dust. One of our Commanders caught his head on a branch as we left harbour and fractured his skull, but I think he lived. This was to be a nightmare drive, there was no vestige of moonlight and by midnight it was just a pitch black, cold, dusty hell.6
The 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry fared no better. An officer recalls,
We set off in a light rain that mingled with the fine dust. Everything was coated with a film of sticky mud, making goggles useless and life miserable. We came to a marsh bridged by a causeway of faggots and stones, weakened by the two regiments ahead of us. A Halftrack stopped with engine trouble, so I pushed it out of the way, but as we drove past it the causeway gave way, and my tank was stuck at an angle of 45 degrees. The tank behind tried to pass to the left, but slithered the other way. The road was completely blocked, so the following squadron found a by-pass, while our two tanks were slowly sinking in the bog. A couple of Armoured Recovery Vehicles, ARVs, appeared and after two hours’ hard work we were on our way again. It was a race against daylight, and we only just got to our concentration area as morning came.7
The following night, they too would cross, while the Armoured Reconnaissance Regiment would travel all the way from Bayeux to the Orne. Joined by Royal Artillery, Engineers, and supporting armour, they would complete the divisional assembly east of the bridges just before H Hour.
Two miles to the east of Bayeux, Guards Armoured Division received the call on 14 July.
A warning order was that the division was to take part in a major attack East of Caen; rather unkindly, as we thought, it was to be called “Operation Goodwood”.
The Guards were not even to set off until the evening of 17 July. There was time for a briefing, recorded by the divisional historians.
On Sunday, July 16th, a perfect summer morning, all officers assembled at Divisional Headquarters to be addressed by General Adair on the impending battle. Beside talking about the Operation in detail he stressed that it was the first in which the division as a whole was to take part and spoke so much from his heart that all who heard him were deeply moved and impressed…8
An officer of the Coldstream Guards was similarly impressed.
On Sunday [16 July] all officers in the division went to listen to the divisional commander, Major-General Alan Adair. We learnt of the wonderful tank country beyond Caen, flat and open cornfields; and that we had 700 tanks to be let loose on the enemy’s possible 30. He was impressive and cheering… “Good straight cool shooting”, he bawled out.9
Come Monday 17 July, the Guards division rolled in four great columns as far as the western boundary of the Bridge Traffic Control Area, between Hermanville-sur-Mer and Beuville, the line of the modern D60, about four kilometres west of the canal. Boscawen later recalled,
It was an awful approach march, cross country on a very dark night with only tail lamps, and, worst of all, a thick cloud of dust everywhere. The dust was appalling. I had made my co-drivers drive as I thought it would rest the first drivers, but this turned out to be a mistake. The visibility was so bad that it needed the best possible driving to keep going without running into everything. Because of this I lost one of my tanks, which went into a ditch and was not seen again until after the battle.’ Another tank, the Troop Sergeant’s Firefly, ‘also broke down due to dust in the petrol filter. This disappointed me a lot. My own tank, being driven by the co-driver, hit something, but no damage was done. Eventually we arrived at about one in the morning drawn up in a long column in a field west of the bridge over the Orne... We filled up with petrol, shook the dust off and got down under a blanket for a few hours’ sleep.10
Though last in the line, 7th Armoured Division had set off earlier, from positions to the north of Tilly-sur-Seulles, to pass the night of 16-17 July in a Forward Assembly Area north of the Bayeux – Caen road (today’s N 13) about twelve miles east of the Bridge Area. In theory, the tracked vehicles of the division’s 22nd Armoured Brigade would follow a Canadian brigade onto CALF track, cross LONDON bridges at H+60 (i.e., 60 minutes after H Hour), then follow BRIAR track to the battlefield.
Passing three armoured divisions over three bridges was not the only challenge. Until more Canadian bridges could be built, the crossing and provisioning of two Canadian infantry brigades would also have to take place over the original three pairs of bridges, Canadian movements being carefully fitted in between those of VIII Corps. And a further infantry brigade and two Royal Artillery Field Regiments were to be passed over the bridges by I Corps during the night of 16-17 July. Traffic Control and Bridge Area organization were to be necessary elements of the GOODWOOD plan.
For all the difficulties of traffic management in the Bridge Area, still greater problems awaited at journey’s end beyond the bridges. Just west of the area where VIII Corps would form up for the coming battle lay the parallel waterways of the Canal de Caen and the Orne River. And beyond these obstacles, the bridgehead east of the Orne held by 6th Airborne and 51st Highland Divisions was little larger than in mid-June. The ‘Forming Up Place’ for the coming VIII Corps offensive was not even big enough for a single division to deploy, let alone three. As the first of the divisions crossed the waterways, turned through ninety degrees to face south, and prepared for battle, the rest of VIII Corps would have to wait their turn to pass over a bottleneck of bridges before displacing forward to occupy Concentration Areas vacated by the division ahead.
David Stileman was an 8th Rifle Brigade officer commanding 11 Platoon, G Company.
It was about 1.00 am that we arrived in this sea of golden corn strewn with gliders from the D Day landings. And the corn was so high that not only did it cover a Bren Gun Carrier but the whole area was so congested that one had to ask the driver to move up a few feet in order to open the door of one’s vehicle.11
The problems imposed by the line of advance were not over. Moving out of the Concentration Areas and on out of the Forming Up Places east of the Orne, the attacking force faced substantial minefields. Though laid by friendly forces, these were still a problem. The open fields south of Ranville had seen six weeks of bitter fighting during which the Orne bridgehead had been defended with extensive entrenchment and mining. In the expectation of a major German armoured assault on the Orne bridgehead, maximum use of mines and wire had been authorized. Many of the mines laid went unrecorded. As July wore on, crops seeded before the mines were laid grew ever higher, hampering detection. And anyway, systematic clearing of all the minefields prior to the proposed attack was not even considered due to the desire to retain a shroud of secrecy over the plan. Looking down over the whole area were German observers atop the tall chimneys and water towers of the Colombelles metalworks.
The eighteen minefield gaps constructed by 18 July.
Initially it was agreed that, with VIII Corps’ own engineers being fully occupied with urgent road building, I Corps would undertake the mine clearing required for the GOODWOOD advance. This task was given to the Commander Royal Engineers of 51st (Highland) Division, reinforced by a Field Company, RE from 3rd Division. On the night of 15-16 July, the sappers set to work. They quickly ran into problems. Their records of British minefields were hopelessly inadequate for the task. Mines laid in haste had gone unmarked; others had been displaced by shellbursts and concealed by the crops. A change of plan was urgently agreed, and on the night of 16-17 July the sappers employed a different technique. Instead of working from patterns and records, they used the gapping drill appropriate to an enemy minefield. By daybreak, fourteen gaps had been cleared and wired off with cattle fences.
As 11th Armoured would be first to pass through the minefields, Pip Roberts had a particular interest in the work. He was not impressed.
As we were the leading division, we would be the first to go through the minefields; it was absolutely vital that we had a clear run… My CRE’s main task was to see that there were enough gaps, that the gaps were wide enough and well signed. Initially 1 Corps’ plans for this were quite inadequate.’ 12
Roberts toured the front line on 17 July and was unimpressed. Via corps commander O’Connor, pressure was applied to Crocker’s I Corps to improve the situation: as a minimum three additional gaps and a barrier marking the edge of the uncleared areas were needed. The pressure worked. After frantic efforts during the night of 17-18 July, four more gaps were opened, the surfaces of some of the gaps were regraded, the minefield and the ‘funnels’ leading into the gaps were wired, and the fencing was marked with white tape. Roberts conceded that, ‘In the end, it was just all right, but only just.’ Some of his officers were less dismissive of the sappers’ efforts. About 01.00 hours on 18 July, two majors whose respective squadron of tanks and motor company of infantry would be operating in partnership in the assault walked forward to inspect the work. Bill Close, commanding A Squadron, 3rd RTR, recalls,
Noel Bell, commanding G Company 8RBs [8th Rifle Brigade] and I walked down to the minefield to recce the taped lanes which we hoped would be well signed. There seemed to be no problem – the entrances to the minefield were guarded by immaculately dressed Provost NCOs, all white belts and gaiters. I didn’t think we would have any difficulties in getting through the minefield.13
In fact, the dangerous work was still continuing unseen in the fields ahead. Only at 05.15 hours would it be completed, in the nick of time and mere minutes before the planned aerial bombardment. And later, after the battle lines had moved on, it would take three Field Companies, RE a full five days work to clear all the rest of the mines on the 51st (Highland) Division front.14
DECEPTIONS, DELUSIONS, DIVERSIONS
In hindsight, the concern to conceal preparations for Operation GOODWOOD seems futile. During the night of 11-12 July, 153rd Brigade of 51st (Highland) Division launched a major raid, supported by armour, whose objective was to place Royal Engineer sappers in close enough proximity to the Colombelles chimneys to achieve their destruction. The raid failed, and the German observers maintained their lookout through the long hours of summer daylight. Whether the chimneys’ destruction would have altered the situation greatly is questionable. Even after the ground was taken by the Canadians (and the chimneys brought down by the retreating Germans) artillery observation from the hills of the Bois de Bavent continued to be effective.
German patrols guard the front, east of the great blast furnaces and chimneys of the Colombelles metalworks.
The Germans regarded Caen as the ‘hinge’ of the defence of Normandy. Even with the city itself lost, they determined to hold an arc of defensible terrain from the English Channel to western banks of the Orne River. Whether the attack came from the west of Caen, between the city and Hill 112, or from the east, between Caen and the Bois de Bavent, was almost irrelevant. The heart of the defence in either case was the Bourguébus ridge astride the Falaise road. This low but tactically important ridge afforded a vista from Hill 112 in the west to the Bois de Bavent in the east. Before it stretched open country with stone farmsteads and villages transformed into strongpoints with interlocking fields of fire. And in front of them flowed the Orne River.
Had the German defenders been given full details of GOODWOOD, would their defensive strategy have been any different? Arguably, preparations to move 12. SS-Panzerdivision (the Hitlerjugend) away north to the Pas de Calais area might have been postponed. Dietrich’s I. SS-PanzerKorps could have been edged closer to the impending action. Such moves might have made a difference. It has been argued that better British tactics on 18 July could perhaps to have succeeded in breaking through the meagre defences of certain parts of the German line, which foreknowledge might have led the defenders to strengthen. Perhaps. But this argument risks taking ‘what if’ speculation too far. On 18 July the ‘fog of war’ was a factor influencing both sides’ performances. Besides, it could equally be argued that a greater concentration of defenders on the ground on the morning of 18 July would simply have presented a richer target for the planned bombing. In the event, some powerful German units well forward on the ‘shoulders’ of the forthcoming British assault were to be virtually obliterated. And since the trench warfare of the First World War German defenders had learned the importance of ‘thinning out’ the front lines in expectation of bombardment, defending in great depth and holding back reserves with which to regain the tactical initiative.
Construction of the tracks went on in full view of the German observers.
On balance it is safe to conclude that the Germans were reasonably well prepared for the assault Second Army was planning. Their lookouts in Colombelles monitored the extensive engineering works on and around the proposed bridges; on the night of 16-17 July, Luftwaffe reconnaissance aircraft dropping flares took photographs which clearly revealed the one-way flow of traffic over the crossings. Nevertheless, Second Army stuck to its elaborate deception plan.
The transfer eastwards of the armoured divisions of VIII Corps was made substantially more difficult by the order that all movements be made at night and in total radio silence. Units were to ‘lie up’ under camouflage through the hours of daylight. The history of 23rd Hussars recalls the regiment’s second successive night advance, no less difficult than the first.
The Eleventh Armoured Division moved across the Orne. It was all done with the greatest secrecy. Camouflage officers were attached to each unit and we were told that it was vital that we should all be in and camouflaged before first light. It would not be true to say that our march was without hitches. The night was dark, the dust was appalling and the route badly marked. The combination of those three things resulted in two-thirds of the Regiment going the wrong way within two miles of the start, and they eventually reached the harbour by a route that was highly original if nothing else, twice practically motoring into the sea.15
The British hoped to convince the Germans that the expected assault would indeed be projected through XII Corps, to the west of Caen. In support of this ambition, various diversionary operations were planned. On the night of 15-16 July the three infantry divisions of XII Corps commenced Operation GREENLINE. This is not the place for the detailed (and interesting) story of GREENLINE, which can be summed up by the words of an infantry colonel angered at the loss of seventy-one officers and men in an action abandoned half-way through and during which contact with the enemy was never made.
This operation was excused as a feint for ops EAST of the ORNE and CAEN. Even if this was the case there seems no reason for Operation GREENLINE to have been such a dreadful pointless muddle.16
Similarly, further still to the west XXX Corps was instructed to execute Operation POMEGRANATE, attempting on 16 July to secure the small town of Noyers-Bocage. Once again, the story of POMEGRANATE deserves separate telling. While the actions fought are of great interest, the results were inconclusive other than keeping the defenders busy (and drawing in important parts of the elite 9. SS-Panzerdivision, ‘Hohenstaufen’).17
The fact remained that, if 11th Armoured Division was to be squeezed into the bridgehead before the start of the operation, there simply was no room east of the Orne River for the other two armoured divisions. Only after the battle had started would Guards Armoured be able to cross over to the ground vacated by 11th Armoured, and only after the Guards advanced to battle would there be room for 7th Armoured to follow. Even with three crossings available, the sequential transfer of three armoured divisions, with yet further units belonging to different corps interspersed, was a huge traffic management challenge.
Lieutenant Robin Lemon of 3rd RTR recalled,
We lay hidden all day on the 17th, and that night the regiment crossed the river Orne into the concentration area in the bridgehead. Traffic control must have been a nightmare. There was dust and more dust, as our tanks rumbled through the night. Dawn broke bright and clear. As the light grew stronger, the shapes of the 6th Airborne gliders that had landed on D Day appeared all round us.
Later, the 23rd Hussars arrived on the scene.
As twilight gave place to darkness, the Regiment sprang to life, the tanks shook themselves free of their camouflage and began to move out of harbour. Vast palls of dust, like a thick fog, obscured the drivers’ vision and hurt the eyes, but this time no mistake in the route could be made, for it was clearly marked. Eventually we crossed the river Orne by a Bailey Bridge, and by degrees we found and entered the concentration area. It was already crammed to bursting point with the leading regiments, with their tanks, attached guns and riflemen’s vehicles, interspersed with enormous and weird-looking objects which loomed blackly all around us. They proved to be derelict gliders, for we were in the open space in which the Sixth Airborne Division had made their landing on D Day. We huddled up against the sides of the gliders, and, beating off continual mosquito assaults, we slept for what was left of the night.18
While the maintenance of the actual bridges was a I Corps responsibility, Traffic Control fell to VIII Corps. Units arriving at the western boundary of the Bridge Area would come under the control of the VIII Corps Traffic Office. All vehicles halted on this line and topped up with POL (petrol, oil, and lubricants) while awaiting the traffic officers’ summons. From 21.00 hours on 16 July, only ‘up’ (eastbound) traffic would be allowed. ‘Sidings’ were provided west of the bridges to hold any traffic arriving out of turn and permit last-minute changes to the order of march. Similar sidings on the east bank of the Orne would hold any ‘down’, westbound traffic until the ‘one way’ order ended, some time on 19 July. (Until then, the plan ruthlessly asserted, even casualties would have to be held within the densely packed bridgehead east of the Orne crossings.)
The Guards followed 11th Armoured Division. At least some of their officers were appreciative of the efforts of the military police.
The 5th Guards Armoured Brigade led the way, the tanks moving across the fields along bulldozed tracks marked with white tape, so as to avoid the final ruination of the few still serviceable roads. The heat was intense, the dust and the dirt indescribable and the night inky black; apart from the discomfort thus caused and in spite of excellent signposting by the Divisional Provost Company, the finding of the tracks was an almost impossible task. 19
An infantry officer with the Welsh Guards similarly recorded, 18 July had dawned. The Guards infantry were going to be doing a lot more waiting as the day wore on.
‘It was after midnight and very dark. Long lines of vehicles were formed up near the entrance to the field with their engines ticking over and despatch riders sitting astride their machines opening and shutting their throttles. Somewhere the Regimental Sergeant-Major was shouting at someone; we might have been on any exercise in England. Then suddenly, we were on the move, bumping and swaying out of the field and into narrow lanes, with their tall enveloping hedges dimly moving past on either side. Every road junction we came to was beautifully sign-posted by the Provost Company with illuminated arrows and boards lit by electric torches with directions for ‘tracks’ and ‘wheels’ in black type… The hypnotic winking of the next vehicle’s convoy-light soon sent one into a fitful doze; there is no room for excitement in the coma induced by a night drive in convoy. Sometimes at one of the many halts I would get out to stretch my legs, but without knowledge or curiosity as to where we were.’ By the dawn, ‘We came to a halt on what seemed to be a long ridge which sloped away gradually into the distance on the right. [The writer was facing north near the west bank of the Caen Canal, just south of Bénouville.] I got out and found myself on an artificially constructed track with chain netting laid over its bull-dozed surface. Twenty yards to the left was another which I knew from the signposting to be the tank track. [The writer was now looking at CALF from Track ‘C’.] On either side of us were cornfields, their tall crops almost ripe. A thin ground mist lay over everything… It was going to be hot later on. One by one the vehicles shut off their engines.’20
Bull-dozed tracks reinforced with metal supplemented the country roads.
The initial avenue down which three successive armoured brigades were to advance was going to be barely wide enough for a single tank regiment at a time, and 3rd Royal Tank Regiment had been selected to lead. 3rd RTR and its supporting elements were to form a multi-arm regimental task force of mobile, armoured vehicles. During the afternoon of 16 July, Colonel Silvertop had been briefed on his regiment’s part in GOODWOOD, and received under his command A Squadron, 22nd Dragoon Guards (Sherman flail tanks), H Battery, 13th Royal Horse Artillery (eight self-propelled 25 pounder Sextons), and G Company, 8thRifle Brigade. The following day the regimental group was further augmented by two troops 26 Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers, with ten Churchill AVRE.21 The Sextons and the motor infantry were old friends, used to operating with 3rd RTR as an intimate part of the regimental group. The flails were less welcome. The General Officer Commanding, Pip Roberts, had denied the need for minesweeping tanks in the vanguard of his division, but had been overruled.22 The flails and the AVREs were placed under command of 8th RB; the infantry company and artillery battery commanders took up their accustomed battle stations, in their respective vehicles at Silvertop’s side.
3rd RTR moved out of their little wood at midnight, initially bound for a holding area east of the bridges, around Ranville. By 02.30 hours on 18 July, the regiment and its supporting elements were assembled at the final Concentration Area in the fields immediately west of the ruins of Amfréville, occupying an area which on 6 June had been ‘DZ-LZ N’ (Drop/Landing Zone November), and more recently had been a no man’s land during the long duel between 6th Airborne and 346. Infanteriedivision. Tanks, carriers, and half-tracks parked-up alongside the battered remains of 6th Airborne’s gliders. An 8th RB officer recalled, ‘Along with our friends of A Squadron [3rd RTR] we had only two hours breather.’23 There was little time to rest, but tired men took what sleep their duties permitted.
Reveille sounded at 04.30 hours. Officers were summoned to an O (orders) Group, the first at which the newly-joined A Squadron, Dragoon Guards flails were represented. At 05.30 arrived the Liaison Officer with confirmation from Brigade that H hour was indeed to be 07.45. By 06.10 the regiment was again on the move and shortly began to enter the newly-cleared minefield gaps. Bill Close’s A Squadron tanks and David Stileman’s carriers followed the white-taped paths, nose to tail. In the half-light, one Rifle Brigade carrier strayed onto a mine, losing a track. But this was the exception, and as dawn broke the regimental group was emerging into its Forming Up Place.
‘21. Panzer-Division’ J-C Perrigault, 2002, ISBN 2-84048-157-X, p 252-253; Alfred Becker diary
‘Les Ponts Bailey’, Philippe Bauduin 2002, ISBN 2-86743-471-8, 2002, p 23; Scarfe, ‘Assault Division’ p 39. ‘Welsh Bridges to the Elbe’ by J H Roberts, 2000, ISBN 1-898893-00-4 contains excellent detail of British Army bridging.
BAOR Battlefield Tour notes, 1947, Section V p 15-17. Some accounts have maintained that each of the three armoured divisions used a different set of bridges. It is easy to see how this impression was created: ‘Rat’ apparently relating to 7th Armoured, the ‘Desert Rats’; ‘Calf’ to 11thArmoured, the ‘Black Bull’ division; etc. But the appearance is deceptive. The code names had no relevance to the movement plan.
‘A View From the Turret’, Major W H Close, 2002, ISBN 0-9533359-1-7, p 115.
W H Close, interview at Staff College, Camberley, 1979
‘The Battle: A Tank Officer Remembers’, G S C Bishop, p 42-43
‘And Came Safe Home’, unpublished W Steel Brownlie diary
‘The Story of the Guards Armoured Division’, Rosse & Hill, 1956, p 36-37
‘Armoured Guardsman’, R Boscawen, 2001, ISBN 0 85052 748 1, p 26
Boscawen, p 27
Stileman, interview at Staff College, Camberley, 1979
Roberts, p 171
Close, p 116
BAOR BFT Section VI RE Plan, p20
‘The Story of the 23rd Hussars’, G S C Bishop, 1946, p68-69. This account mistakenly states that the regiment crossed the bridges on the night of 16 July. In both his published histories of the 23rd Hussars, Bishop occasionally mistakes key dates, which need always to be carefully cross-checked.
Col. J W Tweedie unpublished report, Stirling Castle archive; see also ‘History of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders 2nd Battalion, McElwee, 1949, p 46; and ‘History of the 15th Scottish Division’, H G Martin, 1948, p 65-76.
‘Blue Flash: the Story of an Armoured Regiment’, Alan Jolly, 1952 (144th RTR); BAOR BFT Section IV, p 8
Bishop, 23rd Hussars, p 69
Rosse & Hill, p 19
‘Welsh Guards at War’, L F Ellis, 1946, ISBN 0-948130-52-0, p 173-175
See Appendix 6 for detailed unit structures.
Roberts was overruled by his senior, the founding father of 11th Armoured, Major-General ‘Hobo’ Hobart: ‘My dear boy, if there should turn out to be mines anywhere on your route, it will ruin the whole operation, and then you’ll look pretty silly.’ Roberts was as unconvinced as he had been eighteen months earlier at El Alamein. There, his 22nd Brigade was allocated six of the first-generation flail tanks to clear the advance through deep minefields. Roberts was sceptical. ‘The idea was fine, but here, in its infancy, it was very unreliable. Frankly, I had not got much faith in this concept… and I was thankful that we had the sappers… to pick up the mines by hand if the Scorpions failed. (Roberts, p 113) The Scorpions did fail and Roberts’ scepticism was reinforced.
Stileman, interview at Staff College, Camberley, 1979