Military history

Chapter 4 » THE BRITISH BEFORE CAEN

Closing the lines

There was never any doubt in the minds of either German or Allied commanders that, in the immediate weeks of the invasion, the vital strategic ground lay in the east, where the British Second Army stood before Caen. Here, for the Germans, the threat was 50 miles closer to the heart of France, and to Germany. Here, for the British, glittered the opportunity to break into the open tank country to the south-east, freeing airfield sites and gaining fighting room before the mass of the German army could be committed to battle. By securing their beachhead ashore, the first great Allied hopes for OVERLORD had been fulfilled. Yet on the Second Army front in the weeks that followed, their second hopes – their prospects of a quick breakthrough from Normandy – died stillborn. They did so in a fashion that raised serious questions about the fighting power of the British army that had landed in France, and which demonstrated decisively the genius of the German soldier in adversity.

Between 6 June and the end of the month, Montgomery directed three attempts, first, to seize Caen by direct assault – on 7 and 8 June – and then to envelop it – the Villers-Bocage operation of 13 June, and EPSOM on 25 June. The initial operations were merely the continuation of those undertaken on D-Day. On 7 June, 185th Brigade’s renewed attempt to force the direct route to the town through Lebisey, with powerful fire support, broke down after heavy casualties. 9th Brigade’s battle for Cambes was at last successful after the Royal Ulster Rifles had fought their way across 1,000 yards of open ground under punishing enemy fire. But they could go no further. When the 3rd Canadian Division began to push forward, its men encountered the leading elements of 12th SS Panzer, newly arrived on the battlefield, and bent upon breaking through to the sea. Colonel Kurt ‘Panzer’ Meyer, commanding the division’s armoured regiment, directed his tanks’ first actions from a superb vantage point in the tower of the Ardenne Abbey on the western edge of Caen. To cope with the immense difficulties of moving forward adequate supplies of fuel, Meyer organized a shuttle of jerry cans loaded aboard Volkswagen field cars. Throughout the 7th and 8th, the Canadians and the fanatical teenagers of the SS Hitler Jugend fought some of the fiercest actions of the campaign, with heavy loss to both sides. Lieutenant Rudolf Schaaf of the 1716th Artillery was at Corps headquarters in a mineshaft outside Caen when a swaggering colonel from 12th SS Panzer arrived to announce his intention not to halt anywhere before the sea. This, of course was the legendary Meyer, who assumed command of the division a few days later. Only 33 years old, tall and stiffly handsome, he was the archetype of the Nazi fanatic. Even as a prisoner in 1945, he told his interrogator: ‘You will hear a lot against Adolf Hitler in this camp, but you will never hear it from me. As far as I am concerned he was and still is the greatest thing that ever happened to Germany.’1

‘The SS showed that they believed that thus far, everybody had been fighting like milkmaids,’ said Schaaf.2 He watched the bleak young men of the Hitler Jugend Division riding forward into their attack, and saw some of them return that night, utterly spent, crying tears of frustration for their failure to reach their objective. ‘It was a very sad chapter for them.’ But it had also been less than happy for the Canadian 3rd Division. By the night of 7 June, as their official historian described the situation, when the Division’s forward elements had been pushed back up to two miles:

The 9th Canadian Infantry Brigade Group had fought its first battle with courage and spirit, but somewhat clumsily. Encountering an unusually efficient German force of about its own strength, it had come off secondbest. Its advance guard had been caught off balance and defeated in detail.3

This was scarcely an encouraging omen for rapid progress inland. While the Germans co-ordinated armour, infantry and artillery superbly, the Canadians did not. While 9th Brigade was facing 12th SS Panzer, 8th Brigade spent the day preoccupied with mopping up strongpoints in the rear which had not been taken on D-Day. The following morning, 8 June, 7th Brigade came under heavy attack; the positions of the Royal Winnipeg Rifles were overrun, and the Canadian Scottish were compelled to mount a major counter-attack to recover the lost ground, at a cost of 125 casualties. That night, Panthers of 12th SS Panzer, led personally by Kurt Meyer on his customary motor-cycle, hit the Canadian 7th Brigade yet again. As fires and flares lit up the area, the Regina Rifles at one stage reported 22 Panthers around their own battalion headquarters. In the confusion of the night battle, the Germans began to believe that they had broken through. A panzer officer halted a Volkswagen field car immediately outside the Reginas’ command post, which was blown up seconds later by a PIAT bomb. The Canadians lost contact with all but one of their companies. ‘It is hard to picture the confusion which existed,’ said their commanding officer.4 Six Panthers were destroyed by the Canadian anti-tank guns and PIATs before Meyer broke off the attack, and his armour squealed and clattered away into the darkness.

The Canadians were unbowed, but shaken. Corporal Dick Raymond and a draft of replacements for their 3rd Division closed on Juno beach late in the afternoon of 7 June. The landing craft dropped its ramp a hundred yards offshore, at which point the replacements flatly refused to disembark. At last, after an absurd argument, the officer in charge jumped into the chest-high water, and the men straggled ashore after him. The beach was quiet, littered with wreckage, stinking of oil. When the group had marched a little way inland, Raymond found himself suffering pains and, with his accustomed independence, fell out by the roadside. He found two drunken Canadian engineers, and joined them by a vast wine cask in a cellar. Then a half-track took the other men away, and Raymond was alone again. Having slept where he lay beside the wine cask, the next morning he met a Scottish major who had been on the landing craft with him. He learned that a random bomb from a Luftwaffe nuisance raider during the night had landed in the midst of his group of replacements, killing some 20 and wounding as many again. Still alone, he walked forward until he encountered a field artillery battery, shooting furiously in support of two infantry battalions locked in the struggle against 12th SS Panzer. Raymond spent the remainder of that day helping a gun team. At last the gunners told him to go and report to his own unit. Late that night, near Les Buissons, he found his Vickers machine-gun platoon, supporting a battalion of the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders. They were utterly exhausted after the battles of the day. No questions were asked about his movements – he was simply given a shovel and told that he was with C Company. That night, the battalion was reduced to some 200 men, although more straggled in later. The next morning, Raymond found himself plunged into the bitter struggle that persisted through the days that followed: ‘It was just a straight shoot-out, both sides blasting at each other day and night. We used to joke about “last man, last round”. Watching infantry advancing across those open corn fields may not have been quite as terrible as the battle of the Somme, but at times it seemed to come pretty close to it.’5 Raymond was touched by the courage of the Royal Naval gunfire forward observers, declining to wear steel helmets, being steadily killed: ‘They seemed to have the David Niven touch.’ But he was even more surprised and impressed by the performance of the Canadians. In months past, he had often been scornful of their indiscipline and doubtful of their quality, above all sceptical about their leadership: ‘But the strength of that Canadian army was as close-in fighters. They went at it like hockey players.’

In the first six days ashore, the Canadians lost 196 officers and 2,635 other ranks, 72 and 945 of these, respectively, being killed. After the 9th, the Germans broke off their attacks for some days. The Canadians were able to consolidate their positions and plug the gaps in their line; they could draw satisfaction from beating off 12th SS Panzer’s attacks. Yet if the Germans were dismayed by their failure to break through to the sea, the Canadians had also proved unable to maintain the momentum of D-Day. Meyer’s panzers had successfully thrown them off balance: they now concentrated chiefly upon holding the ground that they possessed, and were most cautious about launching any attacks without secure flanks and powerful gun and tank support. They found themselves unable to advance beyond Authie.

On 7 June the British 50th Division, on the right, occupied Bayeux, which the Germans had evacuated on D-Day, and pushed forward more than three miles towards Tilly-sur-Seulles, Sully, and Longues. Yet when Montgomery himself came ashore to establish his tactical headquarters in the grounds of the château at Creully on 8 June, the leading assault units, which had landed on D-Day and been continuously in contact with the enemy ever since, were visibly weary. The prospect of breaking through the line held by 12th SS Panzer and 21st Panzer in front of Caen was very small. ‘The Germans are doing everything they can to hold onto Caen,’ Montgomery wrote to the Military Secretary at the War Office that day. ‘I have decided not to have a lot of casualties by butting against the place. So I have ordered Second Army to keep up a good pressure at and to make its main effort towards Villers-Bocage and Evrecy, and thence south-east towards Falaise.’6 Despite the worsening weather, which had restricted air support and delayed the progress of unloading, it is impossible now to forget Montgomery’s parting address to his commanders before they sailed for Normandy:

Great energy and ‘drive’ will be required from all senior officers and commanders. I consider that once the beaches are in our possession, success will depend largely on our ability to be able to concentrate our armour and push fairly strong armoured columns rapidly inland to secure important ground or communications centres. Such columns will form firm bases in enemy territory[emphasis in original] from which to develop offensive action in all directions.7

For all Montgomery’s declarations of willingness to regard the independent armoured brigades, with their formidable tank strength, as ‘expendable’ in pursuit of these objectives, they had scarcely been attempted, far less attained. Second Army’s efforts had been entirely absorbed by the struggle to create and hold a narrow perimeter; and this despite the overwhelming success of the FORTITUDE deception plan, and a rate of buildup by Rommel’s forces as slow as the most optimistic Allied planner could have hoped for. In these first days, as much as at any phase of the campaign, the Allies felt their lack of an armoured infantry carrier capable of moving men rapidly on the battlefield alongside the tanks. From first to last, infantry in Normandy marched rather than rode, sometimes 10 or 15 miles in a day. Too many tired soldiers were asked to march far as well as fight hard. It took days for some units to re-adjust themselves after the huge psychological effort and surge of relief attached to getting ashore. In the training of paratroops, great emphasis is laid upon the fact that the act of jumping is a beginning, not an end in itself, and that their task commences only when they have discarded their harness on the ground. Yet throughout the months of preparation in England, the thoughts of the armies were concentrated overwhelmingly upon the narrow strip of fire-swept sand that they had been obliged to cross and hold on D-Day. Brigadier Williams of 21st Army Group said: ‘There was a slight feeling of a lack of cutting edge about operations at the very beginning after the landing.’8 A less tactful critic might have expressed the issue more forcefully, and compared the ruthlessness with which 12th SS Panzer and Panzer Lehr threw themselves into the battle with the sluggishness of Allied movements in those first, vital days before the mass of the German army reached the battlefield. The loss of momentum in the days after 6 June provided the Germans with a critical opportunity to organize a coherent defence and to bring forward reinforcements to contain the beachhead. The huge tactical advantage of surprise had already been lost.

On the evening of 9 June, Bayerlein’s superb Panzer Lehr Division moved into the line on the left of 12th SS Panzer after a 90-mile drive to the front from Chartres, during which they were fiercely harassed and strafed by the Allied air force. The formation had lost 130 trucks, five tanks and 84 self-propelled guns and other armoured vehicles. But the delay and dismay it had suffered were more serious than the material damage to its fighting power, since its total complement of tanks and vehicles was around 3,000. The three panzer divisions – 21st, 12th SS and Panzer Lehr – now formed the principal German shield around Caen, supported by the remains of the various static divisions that had been manning the sector on D-Day. 21st Panzer’s poor performance and reluctance to press home attacks were a source of constant complaint by Meyer’s Hitler Jugend, who claimed that in several battles already they had been let down by Feuchtinger’s units. But Panzer Lehr, for all their misfortunes on the road, were fighting superbly to hold the ruins of Tilly, the little town in a valley south-east of Caen which was to be the scene of some of the most bitter fighting of the campaign. Their panzergrenadier half-tracks had been sent to the rear, for they did not expect to move far or fast in any direction. Instead, the infantry were deployed in ditches and ruined houses alongside tanks employed as mobile strongpoints, meticulously camouflaged and emplaced to present only a foot or two of turret to attacking Allied armour. The tracks that they made approaching their positions were painstakingly swept away or concealed before daylight brought the spotter planes. Caked in dust, unwashed and often unfed, in the appalling heat and stink of their steel coffins, the tank crews fought through days and nights of attack and counter-attack, artillery and naval bombardment, mortaring and Allied tank fire. The panzergrenadiers found the Tilly battle especially painful because it was difficult to dig deep in the stony ground, and at times of heavy bombardment their officers had difficulty holding even Bayerlein’s men from headlong flight.

For the British 50th Division also, the lyrical name of Tilly-sur-Seulles became a synonym for fear and endless death. The little fields of cowslips and buttercups, innocent squares of rural peace, became loathsome for the mortal dangers that each ditch and hedgerow concealed. The guidebook prettiness of the woods and valleys, so like those of Dorset and Devon, mocked their straining nerves and ears, cocked for the first round of mortar fire or the sniper’s bullet. For the tank crews, there was the certain knowledge that a hit from a German Tiger, Panther or 88 mm gun would be fatal. The same was not true the other way around.

The tension before a set-piece attack was appalling [wrote a young Churchill Crocodile troop commander, Andrew Wilson]. When Crocodiles were used, they were generally in the lead . . . You wondered if you’d done the reconnaissance properly; if you’d again recognise those small landmarks, the isolated bush, the dip in the ground, which showed you where to cross the start-line. You wondered if in the smoke and murk of the half-light battle, with your forehead pressed to the periscope pad, you’d ever pick out the target. And all the while you saw in your imagination the muzzle of an eighty-eight behind each leaf.

Then the bombardment grew louder, and the order came: ‘Advance’ . . . There was the run with the blurred shape of the copse at the end. Spandaus were firing, but you couldn’t see them. A Sherman officer was telling his troop to close up. The distance shortened. The Crocodiles began to speed up, firing their Besas. The objective took on detail. Individual trees stood out, and beneath them a mass of undergrowth. Something slammed through the air.9

The Crocodile flamethrowing tank was among the best-known of the British 79th Armoured Division’s ‘Funnies’, the specialized tanks which were the brainchildren of General Sir Percy Hobart. Almost all were modified Churchills – slow infantry tanks capable of only 15 mph, five tons heavier than the Sherman, 10 tons heavier than the Cromwell. Some were modified to carry bridge-laying or ditch-filling equipment, others to lay steel track or to throw a heavy bunker-busting bomb. The Crocodile, with which two British armoured regiments were equipped, carried flame fuel in a towed trailer, and could effectively incinerate men in its path at a range of 40–50 yards. Crocodiles were normally employed in small detachments to support Allied attacks against strongly dug-in German infantry.

He knew at once that it was an anti-tank gun. But there was nothing he could do about it. The troop ran in, pouring in the flame. Once he thought he heard a scream, but it might have been the creak of the tracks on the track guides. Suddenly it was all over. The infantry came up and ran in through the smoke. The flame-gunners put on their safety-switches, and from inside the copse came the rasp of machine-guns. A little later, when he drove back to refuel, he saw that the field was littered with dead infantry and that one of the Shermans had been hit through the turret.

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