With 15th Scottish Division grimly preparing to hold the eastern flank and 11th Armoured preparing to break in to St-Martin-des-Besaces, reconnaissance forces were despatched to seek opportunities to bypass the enemy-held road junction there.
To the east of St-Martin, C Squadron of the 15th Reconnaissance Regiment and B Squadron of 2nd Household Cavalry continued the previous night’s efforts to find a way past the enemy between the little town and Hill 309. Cars straying too close to the town were promptly fired upon. Further east the thick hedgerows lining the steep slopes of the hill proved difficult to negotiate, and the few narrow tracks were also in use by the enemy. Cars reached le Hameau Galet, and some even as far as la Mancellière, far enough forward to be mistaken for enemies and rocketed by British Typhoon fighter-bombers. But in the end it was decided that the only practicable route forward for the VIII Corps advance was through St-Martin itself. The squadrons pulled back to their respective harbours to await the clearance of the town by 11th Armoured Division.
To the west of St-Martin, C and D Squadrons of 2nd HCR were under command of elements of 11th Armoured Division: D operating in front of 29 Brigade, and C in front of 159. The armoured cars were away at first light, and by 07.00 hours were fanning out ahead of the 11th Armoured front lines. Both C and D had orders to avoid the close fighting in and immediately around St-Martin, but for D Squadron, closer to the town, this was hard to achieve. Hopes that the enemy would be as dispersed as on the previous day were quickly dispelled. Creeping across fields, hugging hedgerows, some D Squadron cars reached as far as le Houdan, almost two miles south-west of St-Martin. Others ventured eastward, inadvertently overlapping areas already patrolled by B Squadron. But once again, the conclusion reached was that the main road leading south through St-Martin to le Tourneur was the only serviceable route for VIII Corps, and that road seemed firmly in German hands.
C Squadron set out at dawn, moving south from Dampierre to reconnoitre and penetrate any gaps in the enemy line. Lieutenant Derek ‘Dickie’ Powle’s troop (two Daimler armoured cars and two Daimler ‘Dingo’ scout cars) quickly became separated from the rest of the squadron. Soon after, the third in the column of four, Corporal-of-Horse Brown’s armoured car, became stuck fast between the earth banks of a narrow lane, blocking the scout car behind. Powle had little option but to continue with only half his small force: his own armoured car preceded by Corporal Bland’s Dingo.
Even before reaching the RN 175 highway, Corporal Bland’s car bumped the enemy. In a typical recce encounter, German sentry and British car spotted each other. The German ran; Bland flung the grenade he had to hand. (On the sound basis that the origin of a grenade was harder to locate than a burst of machinegun fire.) Then, before an alerted enemy could respond, the two cars sped forward. Accelerating through an enemy anti-aircraft battery, there were fleeting glimpses of heavy guns and some smaller-calibre automatics, which blazed away but did not find targets. Once the immediate danger was past, Bland recalled the Lieutenant shouting to him, ‘We may as well try what’s in front - it can’t be worse than trying to neck it back through that lot!’ For his part, Powle later reflected that it was as well that he only had two cars, since a whole troop would have been unlikely to survive the passage.
The two cars crossed the RN 175, just west of a kink in the highway which put them out of sight of St-Martin. Taking the path of least resistance they motored on, first south-east down a minor road, then taking a right turn onto a forest track. This led south-west into dark woodland: the Forêt l’Evêque. At one point, a German four-wheeled armoured car appeared ahead, and Powle’s two cars followed - rushing madly to keep up while partially hidden by its dust. They did not cause the German car any apparent alarm, and any roadside observers would have assumed that the three vehicles were a single German column, British vehicles in German use being a common sight. The track climbed, now twisting and undulating through wooded hills. Eventually the enemy car turned away, and Powle’s two cars emerged into the small town of la Ferrière-Harang, passing ‘odd people, etc. who hadn’t the vaguest idea who we were until I [Powle] shouted at them.’
All this time, terrain and interference from other radio traffic prevented any contact with the parent unit. The mush of carrier waves was interrupted by lengthy ramblings of ‘One Eight Able’, the 2nd HCR liaison officer sending from VIII Corps headquarters; and even his signals were periodically drowned by a high-powered American transmitter over which an operator calling himself ‘Blackboid’ would intone, ‘I can hear you now, fine and dandy.’ Unable to receive further orders, aware that many enemies now lay behind them, the pair of cars sped through la Ferrière, pressing on ever further south and west.
A left turn and a two-mile southerly progress down a winding, hedgerow-lined road (the modern D 56) suddenly ended with an impressive view across the deep valley of the River Souleuvre. The river itself flowed unseen, deep between overgrown banks, meandering through lush fields; and in the centre of this vista the road crossed a small stone bridge. Looking at his map, Corporal Bland was struck by the distance they had come from the parent headquarters, an impression confirmed by the inability to make radio contact. He recalled,
Powle’s troop was reduced to a single Daimler
Armoured Car and Daimler Dingo Scout Car.
‘It was decided that I should have a crack at crossing it, covered by the armoured car. It worked, and after quickly dismounting we (myself and Trooper Read) slipped up behind a German sentry and quietly finished him off. We had to dispose of any such visitors, otherwise we were sunk as there was no hope of holding off any numbers with only two cars.’
Powle’s armoured car crossed in its turn and both vehicles went into cover in the trees within sight of the bridge. As the crews set about camouflaging the vehicles, Corporal Staples, the gunner/operator in Powle’s car, worked the wireless set.
The principal weapon of Dickie Powle’s troop was its radio. Information from behind enemy lines could potentially wreak far more havoc than the Daimler’s 2-pounder gun. But as with any weapon, range was a factor, and the combination of distance and rolling wooded terrain made contact very difficult. Six miles away, 2nd Household Cavalry headquarters was struggling to reach cars much closer than Powle’s. Staples had to transmit over and over again before he made contact. Finally, the vital message was picked up.
‘At 10.35 hours the bridge at 637436 is clear of enemy and still intact. I say again, at 10.35 hours the bridge at 637436 is clear of enemy and still intact.’1
So, in the late morning as the 11th Armoured assault on St-Martin-des-Besaces was getting under way, and other 2nd Household Cavalry patrols appeared to be making little progress, the HCR headquarters was electrified by the unexpected message. Colonel Abel Smith grabbed the mouthpiece of his wireless set to demand from the Rear Link Lieutenant a confirmation of the faint signal. It was confirmed. Two cars, five men, had penetrated six miles behind enemy lines and potentially opened up an alternative route across the Souleuvre to le Bény-Bocage. ‘This was wonderful news.’2
The news of the bridge was rushed to 11th Armoured Division HQ. New plans were prepared to exploit the unforeseen opportunity. The first priority was to reinforce the five men at the Souleuvre crossing. Soon on the way was a group from the 2nd Northants Yeomanry, the division’s Cromwell tank regiment. Meanwhile, Powle was ordered to remain in hiding. His reports of continuing two-way German traffic across the bridge confirmed the enemy’s total ignorance of his penetration; it was feared that should his presence be discovered the bridge might be blown.
First sight of the bridge. ‘...I say again, at 10.35 hours the bridge at 637436 is clear of enemy and still intact.’
The Northants Yeomanry had had a quiet start to BLUECOAT, and one more in keeping with their former reconnaissance role. Posted on the far right flank as a link with the American 5th Division, their squadrons had as yet seen little of the enemy (or, as it happened, of the Americans). Today, they were to support the Fifes in the 159 Brigade drive into St-Martin. With A and B Squadrons awaiting events north of St-Martin, C Squadron managed by 10.00 hours to pass two troops (six Cromwells) south over the railway and road. But those attempting to follow were held up by fire along the road from the town. Another troop attempting to cross the highway still further to the west was stopped by Germans alerted by Powle’s earlier crossing there, losing one of their number: ‘hit by bazooka... Progress West and South therefore impossible.’
So, the two troops under Lieutenant Dyson and Sergeant Taylor that had already crossed over were the only Northants tanks immediately available to strike out towards the bridge. At 12.00 hours, C Squadron commander ‘Mac’ MacGillicuddy ordered them to proceed as fast as possible: ‘to br at 638437 to support patrol of 2HCR which is said to be there.’3 Nevertheless, their progress was hardly hasty: by 12.40 they had just entered the Forêt l’Evêque, and encountering opposition as they entered la Ferrière-Harang they were briefly held up. Where Powle had shouted pleasantries while passing through the little town, the tanks were less shy than the armoured cars and ‘brassed-up’ the place with bursts of BESA. By 13.20 they reported the place clear of enemies. Twenty minutes later found the six tanks a half-mile further, shooting-up a German half-track as they reached the main road [the modern D 56]. By 14.05 hours, they reported reaching the bridge.4 Meanwhile, the only element of 2nd HCR close enough to be sent in support of Powle’s half-troop had been Lieutenant Bethell’s troop of D Squadron. Bethell followed the path of both Powle and the Northants Cromwells up the forest road, emerging to find the tanks held up in la Ferrière. Skirting the resistance that had been stirred up there, the cars exited the place not southwards towards the bridge, but to the west. There they disappeared. Only much later were the four cars discovered, burnt out following an ambush by Meindl’s retreating Fallschirmjäger.
The Northants ‘brassed-up’ the place with BESA.
As early as the afternoon of 31 July, General Meindl was informed of Lieutenant Bethell’s troop of 2nd HCR cars, ambushed and destroyed west of la Ferrière-Harang. Correctly identifying the regiment, Meindl proceeded to the incorrect assumption that the Household Cavalry represented the spearhead of a larger Guards formation.
‘By taking a British patrol armoured car “alive”, after its leader – who had been wounded – had been conveyed with his buddies to corps headquarters at St. Martin Dou, [sic, St-Martin-Don] we learned that we had the Guards’ Armored brigade up against us.’5
Meindl urgently reported to 7. Armee that enemy armoured units were breaking through the Forêt l’Evêque, ‘objective Vire’; and he accelerated the withdrawal of his parachute infantry back to the Souleuvre line.
Only in the course of the afternoon did it become clear – to British as well as Germans – quite how the penetration of the Forêt l’Evêque had been allowed to occur. The arrival of the half-dozen Cromwells at Dickie’s Bridge put a stop to its use by German traffic, and in short order various unsuspecting vehicles were shot-up and prisoners taken. One of these was identified as an officer of 21. Panzerdivision, and proved to be carrying a code book, enabling the day’s German radio signals to be read. Though fear of British interception had taught the German armies in Normandy to limit radio communication to the minimum, an interesting exchange between generals Schimpf of 3. Fallschirmjägerdivision and Drabich-Waechter of 326. Infanterie was monitored. As 11th Armoured Division rightly concluded, the Forêt l’Evêque together with the road from la Ferrière-Harang to the Souleuvre,
‘evidently formed the boundary between the two enemy divisions... [indeed, between two corps and even two armies] and apparently the enemy omitted to make it inclusive to either formation or the formation responsible had omitted to guard it.’6
Hence the aggrieved exchange later that day between the two German generals, each blaming the other for what was clearly an appalling lapse of staff work.
REINFORCING THE BREACH
At 11th Armoured Division Tac HQ, Pip Roberts recognised the need for swift action. Although the fight for St-Martin was at last coming to an end, there still lay beyond that bitterly contested crossroads a three mile drive to le Tourneur, beyond that another narrow bridge, and beyond that a major ridge line to be passed before the road to le Bény-Bocage might be attempted. The seizure of Dickie’s bridge effectively led to a back door to that objective, which promised to be far easier to prize open.
‘I obviously had to do something about it quickly, and furthermore it needed a real “thruster” to get to this bridge... and Perry Harding, commanding 23rd Hussars, was certainly a thruster.’7
Not only was Lieutenant-Colonel Harding a keen ‘thruster’, but also he was conscious that the previous day’s fighting had been very much an infantry ‘show’. Keen to restore the balance, he was quick to mount a company of the 3rd Monmouthshire infantry on to his C Squadron tanks and send them roaring off along the forest road. These reported reaching the Forêt l’Evêque about 16.15 hours. Soon after, the balance of the Hussars and the Monmouths were also under way, although after a quick study of the map it was felt that this main body might do better to route around the north of the forest via Aunay, a greater distance but profiting from wider ‘blacktop’ roads. This, Pip Roberts later recalled, ‘was not a big success.’ First the Germans that had opposed Powle’s car and the Northants’ Cromwells had to be overcome. Then, on reaching the road junction at Petit Aunay, [the modern D 675 and D 56] the Hussars’ tanks unexpectedly encountered a stream of American vehicles, southbound from Torigni.
In the American sector, General Leonard Gerow’s V Corps risked being ‘squeezed out’ between the American XIX Corps on their right and the British VIII Corps on their left. Determined not to be left behind, Gerow had given the order: ‘By-pass everything. Never mind these little pockets of resistance. Let’s get down and take a bath in the Vire!’ On 31 July, the most promising advances were being made by Gerow’s left-flank 5th Division, closest to the British. Unable to find the division’s commander, Gerow personally telephoned a regimental commander to tell him to mount his infantry on tanks and move fast. ‘In short, hurry!’
British infantry march past Americans as a despatch rider debates who has the right of way..
It was with these hurrying elements of the US 5th Division that the 23rd Hussars contested the use of the road south of Torigni. Gerow was quickly informed, and he reacted angrily. ‘Well now, I don’t like British walking across our front taking [our] objectives.’8 In fact, permission had been asked and granted for the British advance. Pip Roberts later noted that, ‘Every possible channel was used to defuse the situation and finally someone on the ground was able to point out that “their” bridge was a couple of miles over on the right and then all was peace between us.’ Nevertheless, confusion had been caused.
Meanwhile, the small town of la Ferrière-Harang which had previously presented little problem to Powle’s cars and little more to the Northants Cromwells was now occupied by alert elements of Eugen Meindl’s II. Fallschirmjäger Korps. Emerging from the forest, the Hussars’ C Squadron was held up by opposition in the town. In their wake, Pip Roberts had also ventured forward from his Tac HQ.9 As C Squadron fought their way through the opposition, B Squadron and their Monmouth riders arrived down the main road from the north, to encounter further resistance at the road junction west of the town. The infantry dismounted to take on the machine gun positions defending the crossroads, while the tanks manoeuvred around two enemy self-propelled guns. Seeing a German artillery piece, Major Wigan swung his turret so quickly that his accompanying Monmouth company commander was flung into a ditch. Defenders dealt with, the infantry remounted. With B squadron now leading, the Hussars resumed the journey to the bridge.
At last, to the relief of the small force at the Souleuvre Bridge, the Hussars and Monmouths began to arrive.
‘The crossing... was now only just over a mile ahead of ‘“B” Squadron. The river here ran through a deep valley, flanked with thick woods on both sides... If the valley had been covered by fire from the woods on the far side it would have been a very difficult crossing to force, and everyone expected some form of opposition as we approached the bridge.’10
The welcome was indeed warm, but not hostile.
The Northants Yeomanry reported the first arrivals shortly after 19.00 hours, and by 21.00 hours the bridgehead was firmly secured. The crossing was briefly halted by an explosion that wounded two Monmouths, blowing them off the back of their Sherman tank. The rest of the Hussars’ B Squadron immediately laid smoke and the infantry rushed the wooded hills south of the bridge, intent on locating the enemy responsible. In fact, the explosion on the bridge was later discovered to have been caused by a PIAT round ‘cooking off’ on a hot engine cover. (PIAT rounds were notoriously unstable.) Winding their way up the hillside track, tanks of B Squadron soon found real enemies in the form of a German vehicle: reportedly a self-propelled gun towing a trailer, possibly a half-track of 21. Panzerdivision’s reconnaissance Abteilung. The vehicle was fired upon and withdrew with its trailer burning.
Meanwhile, the Hussars’ C Squadron crossed and pressed on eastward up the main road leading to le Bény-Bocage. Lieutenant Bishop with the foremost troop recalled,
‘On this occasion the entire Second Army advance is being led by these two Squadrons... This is a most nerve-racking operation, as the road twists and turns, and one never knows from one moment to the next whether something is going to open up at point blank range, without any warning.’
Some way above the bridge, the road emerged from the woods allowing a commanding view north, back over the valley, though the wooded ridge still loomed to the right. From this point, Bishop’s lead tank, commanded by Sergeant Dixon ‘is moving cautiously forward and I have halted on the bend just behind, with guns loaded, and everything ready for action. Suddenly, without any warning, there is a flash and a cloud of black smoke envelopes Dixon’s tank.’11
Three mines had detonated together, destroying the tank and slewing it broadside-on to block the narrow road. Bishop’s tank covered the surviving crew as they assisted the limping Sergeant Dixon back down the road.
By the time a pioneer section arrived to inspect the mines it was getting dark. Bishop and the officer of engineers walked forward to the wreck, still smouldering though its radio continued to hum and its pilot light illuminated the blackened turret. The tank blocked the road and the ground surrounding was found to be festooned with mines. The work of clearance began. At length, Bishop was able to inch his own tank past the wreck, an old German infantry helmet on his head as he squinted over the turret top into the darkness. Bishop slowed as a German machine gun opened up, driving the pioneers back into the woods. Finally, and to his undisguised relief, the advance to le Bény-Bocage was called off and Bishop rejoined the rest of C Squadron about midnight. B Squadron likewise threaded their way back down through the woods to spend the night in the tight regimental leaguer around the bridgehead. Higher up, the British infantry dug in on the wooded slopes. Quiet descended. Bishop recalled,
‘One more prisoner had walked into the bridgehead, confirming that the enemy ahead was 21. Panzer Division, but the German machine guns firing sporadic bursts through the night had by now evaporated.’
THE DEVELOPING PLAN
Following his daring foray, Roberts stopped briefly at his Tac HQ south-west of St-Martin-des-Besaces. With the town secured and its defence entrusted to 15th (Scottish) Division, the main body of 11th Armoured was now free to set out on its new, unexpected south-westerly course. And some time later, returning to his divisional Main HQ about 17.30 hours, Roberts found orders from his corps commander confirming action he had already initiated.
General O’Connor had wasted no time in recognising the significance of the capture of the bridge. In orders timed at 14.00 hours, he directed 11th Armoured to secure the ‘Point Aunay’12 road junction as a prelude to moving onward to Étouvy the next day. From the point of view of the VIII Corps headquarters, the logic was inescapable. If St-Martin-des-Besaces could be reached from Caumont in one day, and the bridge in a second, then covering a similar distance to Étouvy on the third would seem a reasonable aspiration. At least as far as distance on the map was concerned. (Though the terrain to be crossed might be another matter altogether, to say nothing of the enemy.)
Nor did O’Connor’s new orders allow for the Americans. As a further objective, Roberts was to occupy points 204 [modern 204], two kilometres west of Dickie’s Bridge; 205 [modern 207], two kilometres east of the bridge, overlooking the road to le Bény-Bocage; and 266 [modern 262], two kilometres east of le Bény-Bocage and commanding the main Vire to Villers-Bocage road. As for the Petit Aunay road junction, Roberts’ division had already found this in American hands.13 Having already experienced a tricky confrontation with the Americans, Roberts’ comment that he ‘was quite unable to find the Pt 204 given in the order’ appears a diplomatic ‘blind eye’ on his part (the feature was clearly visible on his maps!). It was a hilltop over a mile west of Dickie’s bridge, well within the American sector (and indeed overlooking the Souleuvre crossing the US 5th Division was intended to use, on the main St-Lô to Vire highway). Lastly, O’Connor directed, ‘2nd Household Cavalry will tonight patrol south with the utmost vigour in the direction of Vire. The task is also essential to the Allied plan.’ In fact, the task would not appear so essential the following day; but for now the 2nd HCR was to be deprived of its rest.
O’Connor’s revised plan for his corps was therefore to exploit the unexpected breakthrough by redirecting the advance of 11th Armoured, while pushing the (reserve) Guards Armoured Division down the originally intended route south through St-Martin. 15th (Scottish) Infantry Division would meanwhile cover the exposed left flank of the corps’ salient until such time as XXX Corps succeeded in pushing forward. At a higher level, Second Army commander Dempsey reacted to the welcome news of the 11th Armoured Division breakthrough by approving their capture of the heights above le Bény-Bocage. This objective had originally been allocated for possible exploitation by 7th Armoured following a successful XXX Corps advance. Given XXX Corps’ slow progress, the star role in Operation BLUECOAT was already shifting to VIII Corps.
The wood-lined road rose steeply from the bridge.
So, by the end of an eventful day for 11th Armoured Division, the 23rd Hussars and 3rd Monmouth group had a firm bridgehead south of the Souleuvre crossing. Further back, the 3rd RTR and 8th RB group halted around la Ferrière-Harang (between them and the river, an American regiment had arrived and dug in during the night). The Shropshires had (again!) been deprived of long awaited rest to resume their advance: this time around the Forêt l’Evêque. The Fifes were grouped by the highway west of St-Martin, and Northants Yeomanry squadrons that had failed to negotiate the traffic jams on the road south formed defensive, screening lines (bumping Americans and Germans alike) around the Petit Aunay junction.