WR2000: The Battle for Normandy 1944
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We are moving on a little in the campaign to the end of July. Following the launch of Operation Cobra, the US breakout in the west, it was deemed crucial for the British to draw reserves and pressure away from the US sector. Consequently, Dempsey was instructed by Montgomery to seize high ground, dominated by Mount Pincon, south of Caumont and Villers-Bocage and the surrounding area. The Operation was codenamed Bluecoat. The advance was prepared by yet another heavy bombardment by the Allied airforces, but ground to a halt in the face of clever tactics by the often fragmented German defenders, and by the well situated minefields.Success only came when elements of 11th Armoured located a gap in the German lines, crossed Bull Bridge and began threatening Vire, a town crucial to the German defensive positions. The British had also begun to outflank Mount Pincon and had driven a six mile wedge between the German 7th and 5th Armies. Further north objectives on the flanks of Mount Pincon remained untaken, prompting Dempsey to sack his XXX Corps commander, Bucknall and 7th Armoureds CinC, Erskine.The fighting for Mount Pincon, which commenced on August 6th, was considered to be some of the hardest of the Normandy campaign.Despite many problems and failures, Bluecoat achieved its main objective, which was to draw German reserves and troops away from the US sector, and indeed away from Caen where real progress was beginning to be made in Operations Totalize and Tractable.We will concentrate on three key aspects of the Bluecoat actions.
1. 11th Armoureds capture of St Martin-des-Besaces
2. The penetration of the German defensive line via Bull Bridge
3. The assault on Mount Pincon by XXX Corps
Bluecoat Stage One, 11th Armoured and the drive to St Martin.
Bluecoat was a two corps operation with VIII Corps consisting of 11th Armoured, Guards Armoured and 15th Scottish Infantry divisions. Their objectives were St Martin-des-Besaces, Foret lEveque, Le Beny Bocage and Vire. Locate these on the map (left) which illustrates 11th Armoureds progress. XXX Corps, on the left of VIII Corps (or to the west if you prefer) consisted of 7th Armoured division, and 43rd Wessex and 50th Northumbrian infantry divisions. Their objectives were Villers-Bocage, Aunay-sur-Odon and ultimately Mount Pincon.The operation was launched on July 30th. Progress was difficult and casualties mounted with the 1st Herefords suffering most heavily. Steel Brownlie, 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry (11th Armoured) recorded:
"Trouble started at once. The Herefords were heavily mortared on the start line and suffered casualties before even seeing the enemy. They captured their first objective, a low ridge covered with orchards, which had been a line of lightly held enemy posts. The ground was rock covered by an inch or so of soil."
Captain Wardman, 1st Herefords wrote:
"Lucky were those who found an abandoned German trench The enemy had us under direct observation. They knew the exact range; they brought everything down on us with extreme accuracy Stretcher cases and walking wounded filtered sadly to the rear, pushing past the KSLI. For hours the Herefords waited hugging the ground watching as comrades were killed or wounded, waiting for the RAF bombing programme delayed by fog. It was midday when the bombers at last arrived. The Herefords rose and advanced towards the clouds of billowing smoke "
Major Ellis, Second-in-Command 4th KSLI, noted:
"It was bad for morale waiting to go up and seeing rather mangled Hereford wounded coming back through us on jeeps. Our artillery was absolutely first class and we had more of it than the Boche, whose fire started to slacken about 1500 hrs."
15th Scottish, supported by Churchill tanks of 29th Armoured Brigade, secured Point 309 and by the end of the day, thanks in part to the superiority of British artillery, the 4th KSLI, supported by 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry tanks, reached La Fouquerie. However, just as they were about to settle down for the night the order came through from General Richard OConnor, Corps commander, that they would have to press on to high ground to the west of St Martin-des-Besaces. This would allow a concerted attack with 15th Scottish from the east on the following morning. Major Robinson, 4th KSLI, wrote:
"It will be realised that this was quite a tall order to receive, just as the Battalion, tired out by the days exertions, was settling down and sorting itself out for the night. The order involved an advance of about 5,000 yards in darkness, as far as we knew against the enemy. It would be difficult enough to find the way and control the Battalion in the dark even without the enemy. We did not at the time know his exact whereabouts, but we thought he was some 200 yards away from our positions."
The following day, July 21st, 4th Kings Shropshire Light Infantry (part of 11th Armoured) launched the attack on St Martin at 0930.Steel Brownlie wrote of the assault;
"The infantry were under heavy Spandau fire. We pushed forward slowly through outhouses and orchards and Corporal Newmans tank was brewed up by a Mark IV. We laid smoke and crossed safely"
By 1100 St Martin had been cleared, and the advance continued to exploit a further opportunity an unopposed crossing of the Souleuvre River.
Therefore, our first call today will be at St.Martin-des-Besaces to visit a small but interesting museum run by M. Jean Menard. Its approach is radically different to the others we have seen so far. The main purpose of the museum is to cover the fighting by 11th Armoured Division for St Martin-des-Besaces. - How is the material presented? - At what level does the museum work? - What differences are there from other museums we have visited? - What advantages might such an approach hold?
By 1100 the British had cleared St Martin. The advance was to continue thanks to the initiative of Lt. Dickie Powle of 2nd Household Cavalry (in armoured and scout cars). North of Canville, Powles armoured car supported by another scout car slipped across the St-Lo to Beny Bocage road and drove two miles through the Foret lEveque to an undefended bridge across the River Souleuvre. The Germans had left this bridge undefended due to a mix-up between 3rd Para Division and 326th Infantry Division, who both claimed it was the others responsibility to defend the bridge. Powle camouflaged his vehicles and radioed back to Divisional HQ at 1030 that the bridge was intact and undefended. General Roberts, CinC 11th Armoured, realised the opportunity and launched 4th KSLI and 2nd Northants Yeomanry towards the bridge which, despite one or two setbacks they reached and secured at 1400. Momentum had been found and the Germans had made a rare error. From this point on VIII Corps pushed on to play a full role in aiding the Allied breakout from the lodgement area around the beachhead.
We will drive down to Bull Bridge as it is now called and examine the importance of this apparently minor aspect of Bluecoat.
Some historians and soldiers who were there have argued that XXX Corpss assault on Mount Pincon during Operation Bluecoat witnessed the heaviest fighting of the Normandy campaign.The plan was for XXX Corps to seize Aunay-sur-Odon and the vital Mount Pincon, some 5 miles to the south.
Progress was difficult and bloody. Bob Bellamy, B Squadron 8th Hussars wrote:
"the battle was hard and progress slow We were dispatched to assist the 1/7th Queens in their task of clearing some woods between Aunay and Villers-Bocage. It was a copy book operation advancing with the infantry battling through the thick hedges. The danger was that we would fail to notice a German concealed in the undergrowth armed with a Panzer Faust".
Pressure was mounting on XXX Corps and 7th Armoured especially.
Monty informed Eisenhower:
"I have ordered Dempsey to throw all caution overboard and to take any risks he likes and to accept any casualties and to step on the gas for Vire"
With 11th Armoured doing so well something had to give and Major-General Erskine was sacked by Dempsey and replaced by Brigadier Verney. Trooper Clifford Smith noted:
"There was a feeling that some scapegoats had to be found for our lack of progress and hope that the new command would have better success in the direction we were taking."
Morale was slumping anyway, and in the Rifle Brigade of 7th Armoured in particular. They had suffered heavily during Operation Goodwood and had had little time to recover. 1st Royal Tank Regiment (RTR) supported by infantry eventually pushed from Villers to Aunay and by the morning of the 6th August, as Sergeant Pat Whitmore of the Inniskillins recorded:
"We harboured the night on the ridge at Hamars much exposed to German fire. The early dawn of the 6th broke into a beautiful day; Mont Pincon to our right rising out of the early mist; in front a valley, calm and untouched by the battle. All day we watched on the ridge as the Wessex Division was working its way up Mont Pincon after an air raid had reduced Aunay to rubble"
Private Bill Hinde of the 1/5th Queens wrote:
"Our objective was Mount Pincon down the road to Villers-Bocage. 50th Div and 43rd Div were going in with us. In one area the SS were stripped to the waist and shouting and screaming like maniacs but were stopped by Vickers machine-guns and the Northumberland Fusiliers. The Candians had armoured turret-less tanks for their infantry [Kangaroos] to travel into action. A pity we did not have something like that. It would have saved a lot of lives."
La Vallee stood on the crossroads of the Aunay-Caen and Villers-Conde roads. On the morning of 6th August the 1/5th Queens advanced up through the pine and chestnut woods to the plateau of the 1,100 ft Mount Pincon. During the night of 6th/7th the Queens pressed on capturing the woods 2000 yards south of La Vallee towards Les Trois Maries on the plateau beyond the thick woods screening Mount Pincon.
Aerial photography indicated that the summit was heavily defended with over forty guns, many 88mms. Allied artillery support was considerable and heavy and the Queens made further progress. Meanwhile tanks of the 13/18th Hussars and troops of the Wessex Division found a farm track up the side of Mount Pincon and, under cover of a smokescreen, reached the top. Nevertheless, it was not until the 9th that the ridge between Aunay and La Vallee was fully cleared.
Operation Bluecoat was a hard slog and casualties had been heavy. Nevertheless, support had been given to the US breakout Operation Cobra and indeed to the efforts that were continuing around Caen. The Germans were once again stretched to breaking point and any thoughts they had of mounting a meaningful counter to Cobra or elsewhere were dashed.