The British developed the Chain Home Radar (Radio Direction and Ranging) network in time to make a significant contribution to the victory in the skies over Southern England in 1940. However, the Germans had been independently developing their own version of radio wave technology, which famously included the direction finding equipment for their bombers and by 1941, the Germans were deploying radar along the Channel coast. The technological battle led to Britain’s first airborne raid at Bruneval in February 1942. At this site on the coast, east of le Havre, an RAF technician dropped in with 2 Para to seize German radar components. Little did Flight Sergeant Cox know that the Paras were under orders to kill him if he was in danger of falling into enemy hands! Such was the value of the secret radar technology.
By 1944, the Luftwaffe had deployed a dense pattern of radar sites (the Kammhuber Line) designed to ‘vector’ night fighter aircraft against British bombers that now were ranging across mainland Europe. German radar provided considerable help in ensuring that night bombing raids could only be carried out at a tremendous cost in both men and aircraft. In the strategic bombing campaign the per capita casualties suffered by Bomber Command aircrew almost equalled that of the infantry fighting in the North-West European campaign.
Freyer radar antenna.
The Douvres-la-Délivrande radar site, manned by 8 Kompanie 53 Luftnachrichten (Air Signals) Regiment, had become fully operational in August 1943. The four radars were located in two linked sites, in what was to become 3rd Canadian Division’s D Day beachhead. In the smaller, northern, site a single Wasserman (Allied code name ‘Chimney’) long-range early warning radar, was surrounded by mines and wire and was defended by Luftwaffe personnel manning trenches, 20mm guns and twin Spandaus in concrete Tobruks. A short distance south across the Beny-Douvres road was a larger site containing two Freyer radar, for general air defence, including the direction of anti-aircraft fire, and a single, shorter range (forty miles) but more accurate Giant Wurzburg radar that was capable of directing night fighters to individual targets. Five 50mm anti-tank guns, a 75mm field gun, and mortars, defended the main site, along with dual purpose ground/anti-aircraft machine guns in bunkers, Tobruks and open emplacements. The Douvres site was well constructed with heavy concrete casemates, some of which extended four stories below ground, which sheltered most of the equipment and 200 men. The position was proof against the heaviest bombardment but, while the men and equipment were safe, the radar antennas were in the open, vulnerable to Allied attack.
An oblique photograph taken before D Day showing the tall Freyer antenna and the smaller Würtzburg dish.
As the German coastal radar sites could provide timely information that would deny the Allies vital tactical surprise on D Day, the Kammhuber Line posed a significant threat to Operation OVERLORD. Consequently, most radar sites were hit during precision attacks by fighter-bombers. Those that were left operational were used in the D Day deception plan, which included exploitation of the electromagnetic spectrum, by the use of strips of radar reflecting metal foil, code named ‘Window’. These metal strips were dropped by aircraft to distract the Germans by producing the electronic signature of a mass attack at the Pas de Calais. Douvres, along with all other sites in Normandy received the constant attention of the Allied air forces. However, despite this attention, the Douvres radar antennas were active to some extent until the Germans destroyed the sets just before they were captured on D+11.
The village of Douvres-la-Délivrande and the radar site were towards the left flank of the 3rd Canadian Division’s D Day area. 8 Cdn Brigade were scheduled to capture the site with the support of 30 Commando’s technical specialists, whose task was to secure items of intelligence interest such as radar equipment. As has already been mentioned, the North Shores had been held up by stronger opposition than anticipated at the village of Tailleville. Consequently, 8 Brigade ordered the radar site to be by-passed and the Queen’s Own and the Chaudiere were to continue their advance inland on a more westerly route via Beny-sur-Mer,
‘…after which 9 Cdn Brigade could be passed through on its axis towards Carpiquet. The North Shores were now being left behind and Tailleville was only occupied during the course of the evening. Here the Battalion were to reorganize overnight after twelve hours in action and very little sleep during the previous thirty-six hours.’
General Keller’s orders for the night 6–7 June and the following day were sent out by dispatch rider at 2115 hours. 8 Cdn Brigade were ‘to contain Douvres-la-Délivrande with a view to clearing it at first light in the morning’.
The First Attack
On the morning of 7 June the North Shore resumed their advance in a southerly direction from Tailleville and they promptly bumped into an enemy position in the woods south-west of the village. A Company, as recorded in the war diary, overcame enemy resistance, ‘With the cooperation of the tanks, the position was taken and two officers and thirty six other ranks were taken prisoner of war’. The war diarist goes on to recount a bitty and frustratingly slow advance to their objective, the radar station.
‘Considerable sniping in Tailleville and forward of A Company is very annoying and slowing up the advance. Progress is slow and the ammunition dump in the woods blew up, which temporarily halted the advance.
‘C Company who had been sweeping the woods and scrub on the left, moved over and cleared through the HQ dugout in the Wood [Alternative HQ II/736 Grenadiers], Only four prisoners of war were taken from this area but it was found later that they had escaped to the rear and surrendered to 9 Cdn Brigade’s HQ. This HQ position was well dug in with underground offices, trenches, cookhouse and so on.’
In this position, C Company reorganized for the attack on the radar station.
I Corp’s intelligence estimate prior to D Day was that the Luftwaffe specialists would not have the stomach for a fight and that the site as a whole would have been severely damaged by the bombardment. In the event the Intelligence officers were proved to be wrong on both counts.
The North Shores had a squadron of the Fort Garry Horse’s Shermans under command and, in support, the thirty-two 25-pounders of 19 Cdn Field Regiment, which complimented its own machine guns, mortars and anti-tank guns. However, Lieutenant Day complained, with justification, that
‘… the central area of the objective was huge and we were not permitted to bring fire down on the central sector for fear of destroying the radar equipment which the Commandos particularly wanted to capture intact.’
With restricted fire support, C Company attacked the radar site but, according to the official historian, they ‘produced little results and eventually even a battalion effort met with no more success’. An entry in the North Shore’s war diary summarized the situation.
‘The Radar Station was found to be stronger than had been anticipated and was engaged by 19 Cdn Fd Regt, which was in support of us. Our mortars also took on the Station but as the concrete works were rather thick and well dug-in, little or no damage was done. The day was fast drawing to a close and a decision was finally made and Bde permission obtained to bypass the Station and move on to the Bde RV.’
The Douvres position was the only significant part of their intermediate D Day objective (Line Elm) that the Canadians were unable to take. To release the Canadians to move inland, 51st Highland Division, I Corps’ follow up infantry formation, were tasked to deal with the radar site.
The shorter range and more accurate Würtzburg was used to vector night fighters to their target.
Lieutenant Colonel Thompson’s orders were to take 5 Black Watch forward to the radar station but he set off with scant information other than ‘there were a pocket of Germans holding out’ and the limited detail he could glean from the overprinted intelligence map. 5 Black Watch were allocated two AVREs to help deal with the concrete defences. As the Scottish infantry moved forward, they were assured that the Canadians had moved on inland. Their route to the radar station took them through a wood:
‘It was very thick and movement very difficult in it. Troops were encountered, who were taken for Germans. They were in fact Canadians. But after that little trouble had been sorted out, Thompson got ahead. There was a wide open space beyond the wood and between it and the radar station. This was being swept by a murderous enemy fire, and it was evident that the station was much more strongly held than had been supposed. An 88mm gun, firing somewhere from Douvres village itself, accounted for the two RE vehicles.’
It was clear that the Black Watch would need greater support but Lieutenant Colonel Thompson was ordered to disengage his battalion and pull back ‘although he planned a new form of attack from the rear of the objective, orders came that he was to by-pass the radar station, which was left to be shelled by the Navy’. Oberleutenant Ingle and 238 men of 8 Kompanie 53 Luftnachrichten Regiment were to hold out and provide a valuable observation and reporting service. The garrison was made up of about 160 Luftwaffe technicians and a mixed bag of soldiers from 716 Division who had been ousted from their own positions on the beaches earlier in the day. Eventually, 4 Special Service Brigade took over the task of containing the enemy in the radar site. 48 Commando and 46 Commando, initially, took over the responsibility but on 10 June, the radar site and the positions surrounding it came under control of 41 Commando.
During this period, the Douvres radar site was considered to be ‘More of a hindrance than a nuisance’. However, from the casemates, the Germans could not only operate some of their radar but they could also pass back information on Allied activities in the centre of Second Army’s area, as well as providing target information. The site also represented to the Germans a valuable pivot for the Germans planned attempt to drive the Allies back into the sea. Oberleutnant Ingle was exhorted by the surviving telephone line to hold his position. His garrison, secure underground and being within three or four miles of promised relief, had little reason to surrender.
By 11 June, 41 Commando had been left on their own to contain the largely inactive German garrison in their casemates. However, with other Commando units marching to more active parts of the front, 41 Commando’s Mortar Platoon were detached as the Germans in the Douvres radar site ‘wouldn’t have even heard their 3-inch bombs explode’. In order to let the enemy know that they hadn’t been forgotten about, they were regularly attacked by rocket firing Typhoons. In addition, two Centaur tanks were placed under command of 41 Commando. The task of these two AFVs was to provide close support and to join in the harassing fire programme that was laid down by the Commando’s PIATs, 2-inch mortars, Bren guns and snipers.
‘This was designed largely to deter movement between their various “safe havens” during the hours of daylight. ‘F’ Troop came across a German anti-tank gun with a supply of ammunition and were delighted to fire it off at the slightest provocation.’
This harassing fire also prevented the German technicians from coming out of their casemates and repairing cables to the radar antenna. However, in true Commando style, 41 were not content to dominate the ground with fire alone.
‘Reconnaissance patrols during the hours of darkness were a major factor in keeping up to date with the situation of the surrounded Germans. Of great value in this task were the handful of attached German speaking men of 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando who were at times able to assess conditions in the bunkers by overhearing German conversations. Their senior rank was CSM O’Neill although he was neither Irish nor even British but a Czechoslovakian by birth who, like all other commandos who had family in their home countries, had adopted an ‘English’ name for the duration of the war.
The bombardment prior to the attack on the radar station.
A recce patrol on 12 June reported that the northern radar station had been abandoned by the Germans. Therefore, it was decided that, once it was dark, a twenty man fighting patrol provided by A Troop would enter the Northern radar site and ‘verify the situation [but] if the station was found to be occupied, it should withdraw’. The patrol was to be supported by six AVREs of 5 Assault Squadron RE. Raymond Mitchell wrote:
‘At 0100 hours on 13 June, CSM O’Neill led a party forward to blow a gap in the outer wire using bangalore torpedoes … By 0200 the AVREs had approached to the northern edge of the minefield and were engaged in hurling their Flying Dustbins at the bunkers: in view of their short range … they had to get in close. This provoked no response from the enemy, so the patrol moved through the outer wire and Lt Stevens led two men forward to blow the inner wire. On the explosion of the bangalore torpedo, the Germans opened up with MGs and machine-carbines from four separate locations, but were firing very wildly and obviously did not know the exact position of their attackers. A firefight ensued for about fifteen minutes then, as instructed, the patrol withdrew at about 0300 without casualties. For some time thereafter, the Germans vented their spleen by subjecting the Commando positions to heavy shell and mortar fire’.
This proved that the Germans were still in communication with their fellow countrymen whose artillery positions were by now south of the Caen-Bayeux road.
On the night of 14 June, a German aircraft attempted a supply drop to their beleaguered comrades. However, as recorded by the Commando’s historian:
‘In the event, ‘P Troop were quicker off the mark than the Germans and their men reached the containers first. Instead of the food or water, however, which had been assumed to be the enemy’s major requirements, the delivery comprised breech blocks for PAKs, [anti-tank guns] small arms ammunition, booby traps and instruments.’
The commandos continued to penetrate the sites’ defences and it is recorded that some patrols:
‘… worked their way through the wire and mines right up to the casemates and on one such incursion, Sgt Hazelhurst of ‘A’ Troop banged on the steel door of one of the bunkers with the butt of his Tommy gun, yelling, “Come out, you silly bastards!” but to no avail.’
The Germans holding out at Douvres were becoming notorious and with numerous reporters now in Normandy, it was only a matter of time before they attracted their attention. BBC reporter Robert Barr recorded a description at the scene at the radar station on the morning of 17 June 1944.
‘There is still one German strong point which is holding out within six miles of the Normandy coast and many miles behind our front line. The Navy have had a try at smashing it. The Air Force had a try. But still the German garrison held out. We’ve called off all big-scale attempts to clear it up because the commander in the area has ruled that no heavy casualties must be risked in smashing it. But the point is that this strong point of the West Wall, which the Canadians swept past in the first day is still intact. All you can see of it is ordinary fields, with a few grass mounds here and there indicating defence points. You can see a concrete tower hidden amongst trees, and through binoculars you can see the signs: “Achtung. Minen”. “Beware of mines.” This is a sample of what the Germans hoped to prepare for us along the coast. We’ve surrounded it, we’ve shelled it, we’ve bombed it, and it’s still unopened.’
The Allies had been happy to simply contain the enemy but, but by 14 June the German Luftwaffe technicians sheltering in the Douvres radar site were effectively denying a large area of valuable terrain in the restricted beachhead. In particular, the Germans were hindering the use of an airstrip built for RAF Typhoon aircraft, ‘whose pilots were not greatly enamoured to have to brave machine gun fire as they took-off and landed!’ Finally, 41 Commando’s casualties from German fire were mounting and the Royal Marines were ordered to ‘Get them out!’
One of the AVRES knocked out during the battle to clear the radar site.
The Capture of the radar site
On 16 June 1944, 41 Commando prepared its plan of attack. Lieutenant Colonel Palmer had assembled forty-four armoured vehicles to assist with the task, including flails of B Squadron 22 Dragoons, reinforced by troops from C Squadron, and four troops of AVREs from 5 Assault Squadron RE. The 7.2-inch guns of a Royal Artillery heavy regiment were to supplement the normal support of the field artillery regiments‥
The attack was to be preceded by a thirty minute naval and heavy artillery bombardment. However, as the Royal Marines commented, ‘even their 202-pound shells did little more than chip the massive concrete bunkers, and perhaps giving the inmates a slight headache’. Meanwhile the AVREs of 77 Squadron were to mount a noisy and obvious diversionary attack on the main radar site from the south, just before H Hour. The importance of planning input by officers from 79th Armoured Division was now becoming clear as they had quickly learned that:
‘… Crabs or AVREs placed under command of the infantry would be mishandled and suffer heavy casualties. Particularly did they not allow for the short range of the Petard and consequent vulnerability of AVREs.’
The infantry’s lack of cross training with 79th Armoured Division’s various equipments was telling. There had been too little time in the run up to D Day. Hobart’s divisional staff had sought to overcome the technical challenges presented by the coastal defences and the resulting vale of secrecy over their activity was only reluctantly lifted to key personnel. However, after two weeks in action, lessons had been learned and 41’s plan, conceived with help of assault engineer officers, was effective in its execution.
The bombardment began at 1630 hours and, as planned at 1700, the armour advanced. Half of B Squadron’s Sherman flails, two vehicles each attached to the four troops of AVREs, started to beat their way through the wire and across the minefields surrounding the two radar sites. The remainder of the squadron gave covering fire with particular attention to the five anti-tank guns. The Dragoon’s history records that:
A commando inspects the technical equipment in one of the casemates.
‘In clouds of dust, and with a shattering clanking of chains, the flails moved into the minefield. German machine guns stuttered away here and there, swishing around them apparently at random. From a patch of dead ground, a group of supporting flails, hull down, loosed off machine guns and 75mm shell to keep the German heads down. For half an hour and more, the flails moved smoothly on, biting through the minefield and touching off mines that sent up tall pillars of heavy black smoke. Then they were through, and in the most leisurely manner the AVREs rolled up the lanes to the mouths of the fortresses, … But there was little opposition; there could not be, for the whole area was swept by fire from the flails.’
With the enemy subdued, the AVREs drove through the breaches and engaged the casemates with their Petards. Lance Corporal Sorensen, an AVRE driver described how:
‘… the [AVRE] Squadron moved up to the forward start line, which was about half a mile from the radar station and concealed from it by trees and a farm. … At about 1700 hours, we moved forward.
‘We penetrated about one-third of the minefield before anything happened. But then we came under heavy anti-tank fire. …I could see a column of dust and smoke go up as a shell landed and the flashes from the 75mm guns of the Crabs as they replied.
‘The AVRE in front of me succeeded in getting its offside track in a deep trench and it was stuck there immovable. My commander gave me the order to overtake on the left. As I did so, there was a terrific concussion and my vehicle gave a lurch. My instrument panel lights went out as well as all the interior lights. My first impression was that we had hit a mine and 1 tried the steering to see if the tracks were intact. As I did so, I saw my co-driver lying with a terrible wound in his head. He was unmistakably dead, and I then realized we had been hit by a shell. The next moment, the whole compartment caught fire. I was almost suffocated by flame, but managed to open the hatch over my head enough to scramble through. As I was climbing out, the ammunition in the hull Besa was exploding and a piece of shrapnel hit me in the right leg. I jumped clear and ran for a bomb crater about fifteen yards away. I was joined by my wireless operator and my gunner. Hardly had we dropped into it when my tank blew up. The force of the explosion blew the turret, which weighs about ten tons, fifty yard away.
‘…On my, way back out of the position, I saw the other tank crews place their 70-pound charges on top of the underground emplacements and lie doggo until they were blown. … The white flag appeared and the job was done.’
The job was not however, completely ‘done’ until the position had been thoroughly cleared and prisoners rounded up. Following through the three gaps at 1720 hours were B, P and X Troops, while A Troop attacked the smaller northern site. Y Troop remained in reserve. However, by this time, the Commando’s war diarist wrote ‘…the enemy had been dazed, shocked or frightened into surrender and came out with their hands up.’ Once their protective concrete had been breached, the Luftwaffe technicians had promptly given up. The battle was over by 1830 hours, with 227 Germans being taken prisoner, including five officers. In 22 Dragoon’s history the prisoners were described as, ‘for the most part badly shaken and dispirited men, glad to be out of it all’.
41 Commando suffered one casualty during the attacks, while the Dragoons had four Crabs disabled due to mine damaged tracks but all four were repairable. Closing with the enemy, the Royal Engineers lost four AVREs knocked out and three damaged, with three Sappers killed and seven wounded.
The following morning, having just walked around the Radar Site, Frank Gillard returned to the BBC studio five miles away in Chateau Creully and recorded a short report that was broadcast later that day:
‘You have heard of that colossal strong-point just along the coast at Douvres where getting on for 200 Germans held out till last night. That’s a place to see. Somebody this morning called it an inverted skyscraper. That’s not an unreasonable description. Fifty feet and more into the ground it goes – four stories deep. On the surface, you barely notice it. The top’s almost flush with the ground. But going down those narrow concrete stairways you think of going into the vaults of the Bank of England. And the Germans did themselves well down below there – central heating, electric light, hot water, air conditioning, radios, telephones, comfortable well-furnished rooms and offices, well-equipped workshops and ample supplies of food and ammunition. The Germans who were standing here on this ground fourteen days ago certainly must have thought that they had little to fear, and yet what a change now!
50mm in an open casemate at Douvres.
Commandos inspect British and German graves. In the background the wrecked Freyer radar tower.
During the afternoon of that same day, Frank Gillard was driven in a Jeep back down to Juno Beach and recorded another report for broadcast by the BBC:
‘I’m looking towards the bay now, it is really an almost unbelievable sight. It’s stiff with shipping. Warships, landing craft, merchant vessels – everything right down to motor-launches and small boats. There they are, their signal lights winking in the late evening sun, an occasional siren hooting. Overhead, the sky – there’s hardly a cloud to be seen anywhere; but the sky’s picked out with silver barrage balloons, as thick as currants in a pre-war Christmas cake. And of course we’ve got our air cover, they’re up there now, as they are every moment of the day. And so, on this ground where a fortnight ago the Germans were masters, tonight the Allies are in complete control. I stood by the roadside yesterday and watched the men and machines and supplies rolling in. And a soldier beside me – I don’t know who he was – just turned and said: “Once you’ve seen all this, you know we just can’t help winning this war.” That’s how we all feel here.’
The way into France across Juno Beach had been bought by Canadian blood and heroism.