Military history

EPSOM

The debacle at Villers-Bocage marked, for the British, the end of the scramble for ground that had continued since D-Day. The Germans had plugged the last vital hole in their line. Henceforward, for almost all the men who fought in Normandy, the principal memory would be of hard, painful fighting over narrow strips of wood and meadow; of weeks on end when they contested the same battered grid squares, the same ruined villages; of a battle of attrition which was at last to break down Rommel’s divisions, but which seemed at the time to be causing equal loss and grief to the men of Dempsey’s and Bradley’s armies.

In the days following Villers-Bocage, unloading on the beaches fell seriously behind schedule in the wake of the ‘great storm’ of 19/23 June, which cost the armies 140,000 tons of scheduled stores and ammunition. Montgomery considered and rejected a plan for a new offensive east of the Orne. With the remorseless build-up of opposing forces on the Allied perimeter, it was no longer sufficient to commit a single division in the hope of gaining significant ground. When Second Army began its third attempt to gain Caen by envelopment, Operation EPSOM, the entire VIII Corps was committed to attack on a four-mile front between Carpiquet and Rauray towards the thickly-wooded banks of the river Odon. Three of the finest divisions in the British Army – 15th Scottish, 11th Armoured and 43rd Wessex – were to take part, under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, who had made a brilliant reputation for himself leading the first British campaign in the western desert. A personal friend of Montgomery since their days as Staff College instructors together in the 1920s, O’Connor had been captured and spent two years languishing in an Italian prisoner-of-war camp. This was to be his first battle since Beda Fomm in 1941. Early on the morning of 26 June, 60,000 men and more than 600 tanks, supported by over 700 guns on land and sea, embarked on the great new offensive: ‘The minute hand touched 7.30,’ wrote a young platoon commander of the King’s Own Scottish Borderers:

Concealed guns opened from fields, hedges and farms in every direction around us, almost as if arranged in tiers. During short pauses between salvoes more guns could be heard, and right away, further guns, filling and reverberating the very atmosphere with a sustained, muffled hammering. It was like rolls of thunder, only it never slackened. Then the guns nearby battered out again with loud, vicious, strangely mournful repercussions. Little rashes of goose-flesh ran over the skin. One was hot and cold, and very moved. All this ‘stuff’ in support of us! . . . So down a small winding road, with the absurd feeling that this was just another exercise.1

In the first hours, VIII Corps achieved penetrations on a three-mile frontage. But then, from out of the hedges and hamlets, fierce German resistance developed. Some of the great Scottish regiments of the British army – Gordons, Seaforths, Cameronians – began to pour out their best blood for every yard of ground gained. Lieutenant Edwin Bramall of the 2nd KRRC, later to become professional head of the British army, observed that a battalion of the Argylls which infiltrated forward in small groups by use of cover reached their objectives with modest casualties. But the great mass of the British advance moved forward in classic infantry formation: ‘It was pretty unimaginative, all the things that we had learned to do at battle school. A straightforward infantry bash.’2 That evening, the young platoon commander of the KOSB wrote again:

Rifle fire from the village periodically flared up. We were in bewildering ignorance of what was happening. The rain dripped and trickled into our slits, and there had been no hot food since before dawn. The big shells banging away on the T-roads jarred us, while the faces of the three dead Fusiliers could still be seen there as pale blobs through the gloom and rain, motionless among the shells, with their ghastly whiteness. And this, and those savage crashes, and the great spreadeagled hounds, and the grim churchyard across the wall, evoked a dull weight of depression such as one could never have dreamed. All the elation of the morning had ebbed away. It seemed there was no hope or sanity left, but only this appalling unknown and unseen, in which life was so precious where all rooted, and where all was loneliness and rain.3

The prose of Passchendaele seemed born again. A new experience very terrible in kind was being created in Normandy – that of the infantry soldier locked in battle of an intensity few men of the Allied armies had ever envisaged at their battle schools in Britain. Nor was the struggle much less painful for the crews of the armoured units. A tank wireless-operator of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards on the British left flank recorded in his diary the fortunes of his squadron on the morning of 26 June:

The whole squadron was now in the field, with the tanks scattered around by the hedges. We soon discovered from the wireless that we were in a trap. There appeared to be Tigers and Panthers all around us – there were about six on the high ground ahead, four in the edge of the wood just across the field to our left. Between them they covered every gap. The hours dragged by. In our tank we sat without saying much, listening intently to what was going on over the wireless. I was eating boiled sweets by the dozen and the others were smoking furiously. I didn’t know how long we’d been sitting there when the tank behind us was hit. It was Joe Davis’s. I saw a spout of earth shoot up near it as a shot ricocheted through it. Some smoke curled up from the turret, but it didn’t actually brew up. We did not know till after that the whole turret crew had been killed. Brian Sutton and his co-driver baled out, but I didn’t see them. That made six of the squadron killed already that day. In Lilly’s crew Fairman had been killed inside the tank and Digger James had been blown apart by a mortar bomb as he jumped off the turret. Charrison was badly burnt and George Varley was rumoured to be dead. One of Thompson’s crew, Jackie Birch, had been shot through the head by a King’s Royal Rifle Corps man who mistook him for a Jerry after he baled out . . .

The Tyneside Scottish came back across the field in single file, led by a piper who was playing what sounded like a lament. I felt lucky to be alive.4

A German counter-attack was repulsed on 27 June. The next day, in mud and rain, tanks of 11th Armoured at last poured across the bloody stream of the Odon to gain the heights of Hill 112 on 29 June. Now, at the desperate bidding of General Dollman of Seventh Army, who committed suicide a day later, General Hausser of II SS Panzer Corps launched a major counter-attack. 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions, newly arrived from the east, were hurled against VIII Corps – and driven back. It was a fine fighting achievement by the British divisions and their air support, marred by the tragedy that, at this moment, General Dempsey misread the balance of advantage. Still expecting a greater effort from Hausser’s Panthers, he concluded that O’Connor’s exhausted men were dangerously exposed east of the Odon. On 29 June, he ordered the withdrawal of 11th Armoured to the west bank. The next day, Hill 112 was lost. Montgomery ordered that EPSOM should be closed down. VIII Corps had lost 4,020 men, 2,331 from 15th Scottish Division, 1,256 from 11th Armoured and 43rd Division.

Major Charles Richardson of 6th KOSB came out of EPSOM, his first battle, overcome with horror and disgust after seeing his battalion lose 150 casualties. ‘We were one big family. I knew every man.’5 He remembered a briefing from a psychiatrist before leaving England, who said that if men wanted to talk about a terrible experience they had endured, it was essential to let them do so rather than to stifle it in their minds. Talk they now did, about the spectacle of the Royal Scots Fusiliers cresting a hill to find the Germans dug in on the reverse slope, ‘something we had never envisaged’; about the Germans who shot it out until the Borderers were within yards of their positions and then raised their hands, ‘much good it did them’; about the vital importance of keeping pace with the rolling barrage of the guns.

One of the most remarkable features of EPSOM, like almost all the Normandy battles, was that its failure provoked no widespread loss of confidence by the troops in their commanders generally, or Montgomery in particular, the one general familiar to them all. Senior officers criticized and cursed errors of tactics and judgement. The men fighting the battles became more cautious in action, more reluctant to sacrifice their own lives when told for the third, fourth, fifth time that a given operation was to be decisive. But at no time did their faith in the direction of the campaign falter. ‘We thought the senior officers were marvellous,’ said Trooper Stephen Dyson: ‘They had all the responsibility, didn’t they?’6 Lieutenant Andrew Wilson of The Buffs ‘. . . found it increasingly difficult to see how we should get out of all this – it seemed an absolute deadlock. There was some effect on morale, and places got a bad name, like Caumont. But when Montgomery passed us one day in his staff car all my crew stood up in the tank and cheered.’7 Lieutenant David Priest of 5th DCLI said: ‘I thought it was going alright, but it might take years. We didn’t seem to move very much.’8

After the war, Montgomery said:

Of course we would have liked to get Caen on the first day and I was never happy about the left flank until we had got Caen. But the important thing on the flank was to maintain our strength so that we could not only avoid any setback, but could keep the initiative by attacking whenever we liked. On this flank ground was of no importance at all. I had learnt from the last war the senseless sacrifice that can be made by sentimental attachment to a piece of ground. All I asked Dempsey to do was to keep German armour tied down on this flank so that my breakout with the Americans could go more easily. Ground did not matter so long as the German divisions stayed on this flank. If I had attacked Caen in early June I might have wrecked the whole plan.9

It was in consequence of nonsense such as this that a great professional soldier caused so much of the controversy about the Normandy campaign to focus upon his own actions. By his determination to reap the maximum personal credit for victory and to distort history to conform with his own advance planning, he also heaped upon himself the lion’s share of responsibility for much that went wrong in Normandy. No sane commander could have mounted British attacks of the kind that took place in June and were to follow in July without every hope of breaking through the German defences, or at least of causing the enemy to make substantial withdrawals. Part of Montgomery’s exceptional quality as a commander lay in his ability to retain an atmosphere of poise, balance and security within his armies when a less self-disciplined general could have allowed dismay and disappointment to seep through the ranks. Montgomery served his own interests and those of his men very well by maintaining his insistence to his subordinates that all was going to plan. But he did himself a great disservice by making the same assertions in private to Eisenhower, Churchill, Tedder and even his unshakeable patron, Brooke.

Even Montgomery’s admirers concede the lack of concern for truth in his make-up.10 Like Sherlock Holmes’s silent dog, an interesting sidelight on the general’s character is revealed by the episode of the salmon before D-Day. Visiting troops in Scotland, he cast a fly on the Spey with signal lack of success. On his return, he sent a fish to his close friends the Reynolds, who ran a school, with a note: ‘I have just got back from Scotland and I send you a salmon – a magnificent fish of some 18 lb. I hope it will feed the whole school.’11 It would be a natural assumption of anyone receiving such a note and such a gift to assume that the donor had caught it himself. Many men would have inserted a jesting line to explain that this was not the case. It seems typical of Montgomery that, while not positively asserting that the salmon was his own prize, he was perfectly content to leave such an assumption in the minds of the Reynoldses.

Montgomery’s version of the fiasco at Villers-Bocage on 12/13 June was given in an equally characteristic letter to Brooke on the 14th:

When 2nd Panzer division suddenly appeared in the Villers-Bocage-Caumont area, it plugged the hole through which I had broken. I think it had been meant for offensive action against I Corps in the Caen area. So long as Rommel uses his strategic reserves to plug holes, that is good. Anyhow, I had to think again, and I have got to be careful not to get off balance.12

Montgomery was perfectly justified in telling Brooke that the German commitment of armour to create a defensive perimeter was in the long-term interests of the Allies. But it was, of course, preposterous to assert that 7th Armoured Division had ‘broken through’ anything before it encountered Captain Wittman’s Tiger tank. Only the leading elements of 2nd Panzer were deployed in the area in time to influence Erskine’s withdrawal. It must be to Montgomery’s credit that, while he accepted any available glory for his army’s achievements, he did not seek to burden it with blame for failures. But it was rash to expect shrewd and thoroughly informed officers at the War Office and SHAEF to accept indefinitely and at face value such travesties of reality as the account above. As Villers-Bocage was followed by EPSOM, and EPSOM by GOODWOOD, it was not the doings of Second Army, but Montgomery’s version of them, that became more and more difficult for his peers and critics to swallow. As early as 15 June, Leigh-Mallory recorded his reservations about the handling of the ground campaign in a fashion that was widely echoed among the other airmen, and Montgomery’s enemies:

As an airman I look at the battle from a totally different point of view. I have never waited to be told by the army what to do in the air, and my view is not bounded, as seems to be the case with the army, by the nearest hedge or stream. I said as much, though in different words, to Monty and tried to describe the wider aspects of this battle as I see them, particularly stressing the number of divisions which he might have had to fight had they not been prevented from appearing on the scene by air action. He was profoundly uninterested. The fact of the matter is, however, that we have reduced the enemy’s opposition considerably and the efficiency of their troops and armour even more so. In spite of this, the army just won’t get on . . . The fact remains that the great advantage originally gained by the achievement of surprise in the attack has now been lost.13

Much attention has been focused since the war upon the issue of whether Montgomery’s strategy in Normandy did or did not work as he had intended. The implicit assumption is that if it did not, his methods were unsound. Yet his initial plan to seize Caen, and his later movements to envelop the town, seem admirably conceived. The failure lay in their execution. The focus of debate about many Allied disappointments in Normandy should not be upon Montgomery or for that matter Rommel, but upon the subordinate commanders and formations who fought the battles. How was it possible that German troops facing overwhelming firepower and air power, often outnumbered, drawn from an army that had been bled of two million dead in three years on the eastern front, could mount such a formidable resistance against the flower of the British and American armies?

The British experience during the June battles gave their commanders little cause for satisfaction about the fighting power of many of their troops, the tactics that they had been taught to employ, or the subordinate commanders at division and corps level by whom they were led. Earlier in the war Brooke wrote gloomily: ‘Half our corps and divisional commanders are totally unfit for their appointments. If I were to sack them, I could find no better! They lack character, drive and power of leadership. The reason for this state of affairs is to be found in the losses we sustained in the last war of all our best officers who should now be our senior officers.’14 Even in 1944, it was striking to compare the very high quality of Montgomery’s staff at 21st Army Group with the moderate talents revealed by many field commanders of corps and divisions. Bucknall was already suspect as a leader of large forces. Some of those working most closely with O’Connor believed that he too fell short of the qualities needed for corps command in Europe in 1944. Much as he was liked by his staff, many of his officers believed that he had been out of the war too long now to take a grip on a vast new battlefield. At divisional level, confidence had been lost in Erskine. There were doubts about G. I. Thomas of 43rd Division – ‘the butcher’ as he was known – one of the most detested generals in the British army. The performance and leadership of 51st Highland was the subject of deep disappointment.

Regret to report it is considered opinion Crocker, Dempsey and myself that 51st Division is at present not – NOT – battleworthy [Montgomery cabled to Brooke in July]. It does not fight with determination and has failed in every operation it has been given to do. It cannot fight the Germans successfully; I consider the divisional commander is to blame and I am removing him from command.15

After paying tribute to the manner in which the Canadian 3rd Division performed on D-Day, General Crocker of 1 Corps wrote to Dempsey early in July expressing dismay about its failure in a new attempt to gain Carpiquet airfield, and deploring the manner in which since 6 June:

Once the excitement of the initial phase passed, however, the Div lapsed into a very nervy state . . . Exaggerated reports of enemy activity and of their own difficulties were rife; everyone was far too quick on the trigger, and a general attitude of despondency prevailed . . . The state of the Div was a reflection of the state of its commander. He was obviously not standing up to the strain and showing signs of fatigue and nervousness (one might almost say fright) which were patent for all to see.16

Early reports from Normandy about the tactical performance of British troops dwelt upon their sluggishness in attack, their lack of the flexibility and initiative which – in defiance of all the caricatures of propaganda – were such a remarkable characteristic of German operations at every level. The close country overwhelmingly favoured defence, as the Allies discovered to their advantage whenever the Germans embarked upon counter-attacks. But throughout the Normandy campaign, the strategic onus of movement lay upon the Allies, and thus their weakness in armoured-infantry co-operation told severely against them. ‘Armoured divisions have been slow to appreciate the importance of infantry in this type of fighting,’ declared an early War Office report circulated to all commanding officers.17

It is quite clear from even a short experience of fighting in this type of country that the tanks require a great deal more infantry than the motor battalion can provide . . . This co-operation works very well if the tank and infantry commanders of corresponding formations see the picture from the same angle and have a good knowledge of each other’s role, in fact ‘muck in’. But where such co-operation is lacking, then valuable time is wasted while higher authority is asked to adjudicate.18

A reasonable level of understanding between infantry and tank commanders on the battlefield was often absent. The infantry elements of British armoured divisions seldom, if ever, achieved the vital integration with their tanks that was fundamental to the German panzergrenadiers, who were also equipped with an exceptionally good armoured half-track vehicle to carry them across the battlefield. This must partly be attributed to the parochialism inseparable from the British regimental system. An immense source of strength in sustaining pride and morale, on a vast battlefield such as that of Normandy the regimental system could also become a handicap. German loyalties were to the division as a whole, and absolute mutual support within the division was bred as second nature into the German soldier. There remained a tendency among British battalions to concern themselves almost exclusively with their own affairs in battle. The infantry and armoured brigade commanders of one elite British armoured division were scarcely on speaking terms with each other in Normandy. Lieutenant-Colonel Hay of the 5th/7th Gordons was exasperated when he climbed on a young troop commander’s tank during one of the desperate battles in the Orne bridgehead, and was unable to persuade the officer to advance in support because he considered the risk to his tanks too great. Conversely, following the EPSOM battle, the infantry brigade commander and two battalion COs of one British armoured division had to be sacked. Their divisional commander spoke furiously of the brigadier, ‘who dug a slit trench at the beginning of the battle and never left it’.19

The Panzer Mk V, or Panther, was the outstanding German tank of the campaign in north-west Europe, less heavily gunned but more mobile and reliable than the Tiger. One of the two tank regiments in almost every German armoured division was equipped with the Panther, which weighed 45 tons, could move at 34 mph, and carried 100 mm of frontal armour, 45 mm of side armour. Its 75 mm KwK 42 gun had a muzzle velocity of 3060 fps, and its 14-pound shell could penetrate 138 mm of armour at 100 yards, 128 mm at 500 yards, 118 mm at 1,000 yards. Its only serious weaknesses against the Sherman were indifferent periscope optics and slow turret traverse.

The SHAEF appreciation of the Normandy battlefield in April had correctly assessed the bocage as country in which, ‘it will . . . be most difficult for the enemy to prevent a slow and steady advance by infiltration’.20 The Germans were masters of this art, working small parties behind Allied positions and forcing the defenders out by showing that their flanks were turned. Allied infantry seldom employed the technique, and thus denied themselves an important means of progress in close country. Their commanders relied almost invariably upon the setpiece battalion attack, with two companies forward. This tactic was far too rigid and predictable to defeat a determined defence. In a circular to commanding officers late in June, Montgomery made a vain effort to urge units to show more flexibility. He deplored the habit of preparing troops to fight ‘the normal battle’. He wrote: ‘This tendency is highly dangerous, as there is no such thing as “the normal battle”. Leaders at all levels must adapt their actions to the particular problems confronting them.’21 The problem had been succinctly analysed a few weeks earlier by a British corps commander in Italy:

The destruction of the enemy was most easily achieved when we managed to keep him tired and in a state of disorganisation, which resulted in unco-ordinated defence and lack of food, petrol and ammunition. We were undoubtedly too inelastic in our methods when faced with changing conditions. After six weeks of mobile fighting, during which the enemy never launched anything bigger than weak company counter-attacks, we still talked too much about ‘firm bases’ and ‘exposed flanks’.22

It is interesting to turn to German intelligence reports of this period, such as one from Panzer Lehr which declared that ‘a successful break-in by the enemy was seldom exploited to pursuit. If our own troops were ready near the front for a local counter-attack, the ground was immediately regained. Enemy infantry offensive action by night is limited to small reconnaissance patrols.’ The Germans quickly developed the technique of holding their front line with only observation posts and a thin defensive screen, holding the bulk of their forces further back, to move forward when the huge Allied bombardments died away: ‘It is better to attack the English, who are very sensitive to close combat and flank attack, at their weakest moment – that is, when they have to fight without their artillery.’23 A German report from Italy at about this time is also worth quoting, for it reflects similar criticisms made by Rommel’s officers in Normandy:

The conduct of the battle by the Americans and English was, taken all round, once again very methodical. Local successes were seldom exploited . . . British attacking formations were split up into large numbers of assault squads commanded by officers. NCOs were rarely in the ‘big picture’, so that if the officer became a casualty, they were unable to act in accordance with the main plan. The result was that in a quickly changing situation, the junior commanders showed insufficient flexibility. For instance, when an objective was reached, the enemy would neglect to exploit and dig in for defence. The conclusion is: as far as possible go for the enemy officers. Then seize the initiative yourself.24 [Emphases in original.]

Another German report, captured in north-west Europe, was circulated to British senior officers: ‘The British infantryman,’ it declared, ‘is distinguished more by physical endurance than by special bravery. The impetuous attack, executed with dash, is foreign to him. He is sensitive to energetic counter-attack.’25 It is natural that most histories of the Normandy campaign have focused upon the many acts of courage by British troops, and said less about the occasions on which whole units collapsed under pressure. By this stage of the war, the British Army found that it never possessed as many first-rate officers and NCOs as it wished, and the performance of some units caused deep dismay at Twenty-First Army Group. The consequence was that the best formations had to be thrust forward again and again in the heart of the battle, while others were considered too unreliable to be entrusted with a vital role in operations. On 30 June, the commanding officer of a battalion suffering serious problems in Normandy, 49th Division’s 6th Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, wrote a report which bears quoting in full, because it portrays so vividly the strain that the battle thrust upon units which lacked the outstanding qualities of, for instance, 6th Airborne or 15th Scottish:

  1. I arrived at 6 DWR on the evening of 26 June. From am 27 June until am 30 June we have been in contact with the enemy and under moderately heavy mortar and shell fire.
  2. The following facts make it clear that this report makes no reflection on the state of 6 DWR when they left UK:

a) 

In 14 days there have been some 23 officer and 350 OR casualties.

b) 

Only 12 of the original officers remain and they are all junior. The CO and every rank above Cpl (except for 2 Lts) in battalion HQ have gone, all company commanders have gone. One company has lost every officer, another has only one left.

c) 

Since I took over I have lost two second-in-commands in successive days and a company commander the third day.

d) 

Majority of transport, all documents, records and a large amount of equipment was lost.

  1. State of Men

a) 

75% of the men react adversely to enemy shelling and are ‘jumpy’.

b) 

5 cases in 3 days of self-inflicted wounds – more possible cases.

c) 

Each time men are killed or wounded a number of men become casualties through shell shock or hysteria.

d) 

In addition to genuine hysteria a large number of men have left their positions after shelling on one pretext or another and gone to the rear until sent back by the MO or myself.

e) 

the new drafts have been affected, and 3 young soldiers became casualties with hysteria after hearing our own guns.26

f) 

The situation has got worse each day as more key personnel have become casualties.

  1. Discipline and Leadership

a) 

State of discipline is bad, although the men are a cheerful, pleasant type normally.

b) 

NCOs do not wear stripes and some officers have no badges of rank. This makes the situation impossible when 50% of the battalion do not know each other.

c) 

NCO leadership is weak in most cases and the newly drafted officers are in consequence having to expose themselves unduly to try to get anything done. It is difficult for the new officers (60%) to lead the men under fire as they do not know them.

Conclusion

a) 

6 DWR is not fit to take its place in the line.

b) 

Even excluding the question of nerves and morale 6 DWR will not be fit to go back into the line until it is remobilised, reorganised, and to an extent retrained. It is no longer a battalion but a collection of individuals. There is naturally no esprit de corps for those who are frightened (as we all are to one degree or another) to fall back on. I have twice had to stand at the end of a track and draw my revolver on retreating men.

Recommendation

If it is not possible to withdraw the battalion to the base or UK to re-equip, reorganise and train, then it should be disbanded and split among other units.

If it is not possible to do either of the above and if it is essential that the battalion should return to the line, I request that I may be relieved of my command and I suggest that a CO with 2 or 3 years experience should relieve me, and that he should bring his adjutant and a signals officer with him.

Being a regular officer I realise the seriousness of this request and its effect on my career. On the other hand I have the lives of the new officer personnel (which is excellent) to consider. Three days running a major has been killed or seriously wounded because I have ordered him to in effect stop them running during mortar concentrations. Unless withdrawn from the division I do not think I can get the battalion fit to fight normally and this waste of life would continue. My honest opinion is that if you continue to throw new officer and other rank replacements into 6 DWR as casualties occur, you are throwing good money after bad.

I know my opinion is shared by two other commanding officers who know the full circumstances.

In the field

30 June 1944 (Sgd)______________, Lt-Col., Commanding, 6 DWR27

If the difficulties of 6th DWR were exceptional, it is seldom that the plight of a moderate unit under pressure on the battlefield is so precisely chronicled. Montgomery, on whose desk this report finally arrived, was furious. He wrote to the Secretary of State for War, P. J. Grigg, saying that he had withdrawn 6th DWR from the 49th Division, and castigating its commanding officer: ‘I consider that the CO displays a defeatist mentality and is not a “proper chap”.’28 The unit was disbanded. The Commander-in-Chief perhaps had no other option but to adopt a ruthless attitude to any manifestation of failing will at this juncture in the battle. If some divisions had proved capable of extraordinary exertions and sacrifices, in a struggle of such magnitude it was the overall quality of the army, rather than of a small number of outstanding units within it, which would determine its outcome. It was because of problems such as these that Montgomery found it necessary to keep elite formations, such as 6th Airborne, in action long after their casualties and exhaustion made them deserving candidates for relief. It must also be said that even average German formations proved capable of continuing to fight effectively when reduced to 25 per cent of their strength. None of the German formations transferred from the eastern front to Normandy were found wanting by their commanders (as 7th Armoured and 51st Highland were) because they had been over-exposed to action. When the war was over that most astringent of military critics, Captain Basil Liddell Hart, made his own comments upon the performance of British units in Normandy:

Time after time they were checked or even induced to withdraw by boldly handled pockets of Germans of greatly inferior strength. But for our air superiority, which hampered the Germans at every turn, the results would have been much worse. Our forces seem to have had too little initiative in infiltration, and also too little determination – with certain exceptions. Repeatedly one finds that big opportunities were forfeited because crucial attacks were stopped after suffering trifling casualties. That was particularly marked with the armoured formations.29

Montgomery’s massive conceit masked the extent to which his own generalship in Normandy fell victim to the inability of his army to match the performance of their opponents on the battlefield. After all the months of meticulous training and preparation for OVERLORD, British tactics were shown to be not only unimaginative, but also inadequate to cope with the conditions of Normandy. Battalion and brigade commanders seemed capable of little beyond the conventional setpiece assault ‘by the book’. It may be argued that it was Montgomery’s business to adjust his plans to the limitations of his forces. But it was enormously difficult, indeed all but impossible, to retrain an army, to change the entire tactical thinking of a generation, in mid-campaign. Montgomery was uncommonly skilled in making the most of the units he had, discerning the qualities that suited a certain division to a certain role. It was he himself who declared that the British are a martial, not a military people. There was nothing cowardly about the performance of the British army in Normandy. But it proved too much to ask a citizen army in the fifth year of war, with the certainty of victory in the distance, to display the same sacrificial courage as Hitler’s legions, faced with the collapse of everything that in the perversion of Nazism they held dear. Brigadier Williams said: ‘We were always very aware of the doctrine, “Let metal do it rather than flesh”. The morale of our troops depended upon this. We always said: “Waste all the ammunition you like, but not lives.” ’30

But in Normandy, the Allied armies discovered the limits of what metal alone could achieve. Individual Allied soldiers proved capable of immense sacrifice and bravery; men who felt – like Sergeant-Major Hollis of the Green Howards or Corporal Kelly of the 314th Infantry at Cherbourg – that winning the war was their personal responsibility. But the British failure to gain Caen in June 1944 revealed a weakness of fighting power and tactics within the British army much more than a failure of generalship by Sir Bernard Montgomery.

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