WR2000: The Battle for Normandy 1944

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Operation Epsom, Baron-sur-Odon and the Battle for Hill 112

Background

The River Odon runs from south-west to north-east, and enters the river Orne at Caen. Both north and south of the Odon are ridges of high ground, which dominate the surrounding area. The sides of the Odon valley roll gently down to the Odon river, which is more of a narrow stream than a broad river. Though not deep, it is an obstacle for vehicles, including tanks, because of the boggy flood plains and many trees along each bank. A few narrow stone bridges crossed the Odon, but most had been destroyed by the Germans. Access to the intact bridges was through killing zones of anti-tank guns and minefields. The numerous small villages in the area consisted of a few stone farms and cottages, clustered round a church. Most of the buildings were old, well constructed of local stone, and natural fortresses for the defending Germans. The northern ridge of the Odon valley was dominated by the British, but the start line for the operation was further back, along the line of the Bayeux-Caen railway. The aim of Epsom was to secure the southern ridge, culminating in Hill 112, which overlooked Caen to the east (still in German hands). Hill 112 is not really a hill at all. It is the highest point on a ridge with many false crests, but the view from the trig point reveals its tactical importance.

On June 18th 1944, Montgomery issued a directive for the capture of Caen, ordering an attack principally to the west, with the aim of capturing the high ground above the Orne and Odon rivers, which overlooked the city. He allotted the four divisions of Lieutenant-General Dempsey’s VIII Corps to the task – 7th and 11th Armoured, 15th Scottish and 43rd Wessex, totalling some 60,000 men and 600 tanks. The attack was due to begin on 22nd June, and was code-named Epsom.

The Channel storm of 19-22 June delayed the arrival of the three new divisions (the 7th Armoured had already landed), with the result that Epsom was postponed until 26th June. Because of strong German positions on high ground to the west (the British right flank), 49th Division (known as the Polar Bears after their distinctive shoulder badge) were to attack Fontenay and Rauray a day before the main assault to secure the high ground the Germans occupied. This attack went in on 25th June, so by 26th, the German defenders – mostly 12th SS Hitlerjugend Division (Hitler Youth) – on Hill 112 were expecting an attack. The attack was launched at 0730 hours with a tremendous artillery barrage, rather like a First World War set-piece infantry attack. Amongst the indirect fire support assets were three RN cruisers anchored offshore and firing shells accurately fifteen miles inland! The first objective was to reach and force a crossing over the Odon river. As the opening barrage crept forward one hundred yards every three minutes, the infantry of the 15th Scottish division, moved confidently forward, supported by Churchill tanks. John Keegan describes the advance of the Scotsmen:

"…The division was attacking two brigades up, which meant that six of its infantry battalions were in the first wave, with the other three waiting in the rear to support the leaders. As each brigade also attacked two up, however, this meant there were in fact only four battalions on the start line, each strung out along a front of about 1000 yards. And since each battalion, about 750 men strong, likewise kept two of their four companies in reserve, the true number of men who started forward into the cornfields that morning was probably no more than 700. They are best pictured, as they would have looked from the cockpit of any passing spotter aircraft, as 24 groups of 30 riflemen, called platoons, separated by intervals of about 150 yards…Each platoon consisted of three smaller groups, called sections, which were led by a corporal, and were based on the Bren machine gun which gave them their firepower…".

The Germans - initially the 12th SS Panzer Division - had turned the route of the advance into three lines of fortifications of barbed wire entanglements, machine gun nests, trenches, minefields and artillery and mortar positions. Battle-hardened on the Eastern front, the SS had been taught to with-hold their fire until point-blank range, to inflict maximum casualties, then switch positions so that they would seem more numerous to the attackers than they actually were. Sometimes, as the British swept past the German positions, snipers who had laid low opened up on the British second wave, aiming for the infantry officers leading their men, and tank commanders.

The Scottish battalions, supported by the tanks, had battled their way through the bocage as far as Cheux by nightfall and the following morning (27th) had advanced through Mondrainville, and surprised the Germans troops guarding the bridge over the Odon river at Tourmeauville. This route became known as the ‘Scottish Corridor’. When all the battalions of the 15th Scottish Division had been committed to the battle and the exhausted Scotsmen had advanced as far as Baron, they were relieved by the infantry of the 11th Armoured Division, following close behind. Here, we look at the experience of the 4th King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (4KSLI) of 159th Infantry Brigade at Baron in detail.

The Plan

The basic aim of Epsom was to sweep round to the west and south of Caen and reach the main Caen-Falaise road. This would almost encircle the German defenders around Caen, particularly those at the Carpiquet aerodrome who were preventing any further progress on Monty’s left flank. Despite the Field Marshal’s claims after the war that his intention was to ‘fix’, or hold, the enemy armour in the east whilst the Americans swept round from the west, Epsom was clearly designed for the British to achieve the breakthrough. The Corps plan was to advance on two axes. The left one stretched from Cheux, via Baron, to Hill 112. On the right, the axis was from Grainville, via Gavrus, to Evrecy. Heavy German defensive fire meant that the right axis could make no headway towards Gavrus, and the major effort became the advance to Baron. The ‘Scottish Corridor’ thus stretched from Mondrainville, via the Tourmeauville bridge. This little stone bridge was rushed by a company of the 2nd Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders at 1700 hrs on the afternoon of 27th June, and taken intact. For much of Epsom it was the only crossing point over the Odon, and thus a considerable bottleneck. Armoured support in the form of the 23rd Hussars followed, whilst 4KSLI, who had been following the Scottish advance in lorries, were waiting their turn to advance. 4KSLI left their trucks at Cheux, and advanced on foot via Mondrainville, crossing the bridge at 2130 and arrived in Baron at 2330 hours on 27 June.

The advance down the Mondrainville-Baron road (which was not then metalled) was like this:

"…the march up was one of the most unnerving actions of all, with all the wounded coming back on jeeps; dead, mutilated bodies lying around; blazing up-ended Bren carriers with their crews still in them; refugees with their few pitiful belongings pouring back; the stench of dead cattle…"

As they got closer to the Odon river, the scene became more dangerous:

"…The route, which was not easy to follow, was under small arms fire; shells and mortar bombs were dropping astride the track, while close by a self-propelled gun was having a duel with one of our tanks…darkness was falling and the Germans were firing white Verey lights (signal flares) all the while, and it seemed as though we were setting off into the unknown…" .

As soon as the 4 KSLI reached Baron, they dug slit trenches along the southern edge of the village, facing Hill 112. These were two or three-man trenches for protection against artillery fire. The battalion, which had landed in France on 14th June, had never been in battle before, and started suffering casualties from mortar fire as soon as it arrived at Baron. Three rifle companies (about 100 men each) dug in along the edge of the village, C on the right, from the calvary cross to the church, A Company beyond them, and B further along the left flank. D Company and HQ were around the Chateau de Baron to the rear.

The fields in front were full of corn, waist-high, which obscured any vision, and Hill 112 dominated the area. On the morning of 28th June, whilst the KSLI were digging in, tanks of the 23rd Hussars and infantry of the 8th Rifle Brigade moved up to the crest of Hill 112. On reaching the little wood at the top, German Panzer IVs of 12th SS Division, based in Esquay, ambushed them. The 23rd Hussars, and Rifle Brigade troops fought off three SS attacks during the day, but running short of ammunition, withdrew to beyond Baron that night.

The Fighting

Withdrawing at night was common practice amongst tank crews of both sides. With no night-fighting capability, and vulnerable to enemy infantry tank-hunting teams, tanks withdrew from the battlefield at last light, when they could rearm and refuel. That night the Germans surrounded the ‘Scottish Corridor’ and counterattacked its base from Mondrainville in the west, and Mouen in the east. This counter attack failed, and the following afternoon, 29th June, the 3rd Monmouths (also part of 159 Brigade) crossed the Odon south of Mouen, widening the base of the corridor.

At the same time, the 8th Rifle Brigade and tanks of 3 RTR ground up the long, dusty slope of Hill 112 again. To the West, tanks of 44 RTR and infantry from 2 KRRC took Hill 113 and Evrecy, but were forced to retreat by units of 10th SS Panzer Division. With the 9th, 10th and 12h SS Panzer Divisions all identified in the area, a major German counter attack was expected – supported by Ultra Enigma decrypts – and at 2200 that night all 11th Armoured Division tanks were ordered back north, across the Odon, to meet this new threat. As the tanks gave up Hill 112 for the second time, this left just the infantry, including 4 KSLI, south of the Odon river, and very exposed. The armour had to be withdrawn because it was needed to protect the flanks and base of the corridor. Also, it had little room in which to manoeuvre and only the narrow bridges as escape routes over the river Odon. As the tanks withdrew, the SS immediately reoccupied Hill 112.

Being overlooked for most of their time in Baron, 4 KSLI was subjected to near-continuous mortaring and shelling, usually indirect fire guided by observers in trees and church towers. These shells and mortar rounds caused many casualties. Major G. Edwards, commanding C Company, recalled:

"…In the churchyard were several German graves, with a helmet on each wooden cross. Mortar ‘stonks’ blew these off, and after each barrage, a Frenchman would appear and solemnly replace each helmet on its cross…The church spire was an early casualty, which denied our observers a useful platform…"

Just two days into Epsom, on 28th June, Brigadier JG Sandie, commanding 159 Brigade, which included 4 KSLI, was sacked for not driving his brigade hard enough. This was a not uncommon reaction by Montgomery in the Normandy campaign; the neighbouring 49th Division also lost two brigadiers in this way, whilst the axe later fell on Major-General Erskine, GOC of 7th Armoured Division, one of his brigadiers and CRA, and Lieutenant-General Bucknall, GOC of XXX Corps.

Apart from the shelling, the days were quiet, but everyone was thirsty as water was short, and the heat was intense, and rations could only be brought up at night. The battalion was unable to move about during the day, as all movement attracted shellfire, and battalion HQ was hit several times; this was later attributed to a civilian seen moving about the area. He was assumed to be a local Frenchman, but the discovery of a military wireless in the attic of his house, led to his arrest, from which he eventually escaped. Interviews by this author with the current inhabitants who remembered the war reveal that most villagers were evacuated to Bayeux during the Epsom battles and returned to find their houses shattered, livestock killed and crops destroyed by the fighting. Unsurprisingly, nearly all the houses in Baron are new. 4 KSLI’s HQ was originally in an orchard, then it moved into the walled garden of the Chateau, finally ending up in the cellars: each time it was shelled, and many of its signallers and intelligence staff were killed or wounded.

When the British armour was withdrawn from Hill 112 on 30th June, the Baron-Hill 112 salient protruded like a finger into the German front. As there was no armour protection between the KSLI and the enemy, C Company brought up two 6-pounder anti-tank guns and sited them north of the calvary, which was then a sunken lane. These were to provide flank protection against the expected Panzer counter-attack.

During the night of 30th June/1st July, SS soldiers attacked C Company out of the cornfield and destroyed the anti-tank guns, killing their crews and setting fire to the two Bren carriers which had towed them there. The battalion’s 3-inch heavy mortars, sited in the field behind Baron church, were also attacked, and destroyed, the bright glare of their exploding ammunition lighting up the night sky. Pre-arranged defensive artillery fire was called-for by the KSLI, and the divisional [medium] 5.5-inch artillery fired at three DF (defensive fire) targets, code-named ‘Dainty’, ‘Dorothy’ and ‘Duchess’, which helped break up the German assault. Several Germans infiltrated behind C Company’s trenches and Major Edwards recalled patrolling his company area with Company Sergeant Major Baker the following morning:

"…We heard a whimpering coming from a bush like a wild animal. CSM Baker pushed his Sten gun into the branches and flushed out two young SS soldiers, both only about 16, who were shaking and obviously bomb-happy. They were led to the rear…A while later, we were passing a small slit trench, when Baker pointed and said ‘Look at that sir’. A German was lying full length neatly in the bottom, with his head under cover at one end, and his feet his covered at the other. ‘Better not take any chances sir’, he said and put a bullet into the German. The ‘corpse’ came to life and more bullets followed the first…Later on, some tanks appeared and helped clear the position, after which we felt more secure...".

Withdrawal

C Company counted 25 dead SS within their perimeter and had captured a further 10 during 1st July, and collected 23 machine guns abandoned by the Germans. Eventually, the corn was set on fire by phosphorus grenades thrown by the KSLI, and several more Germans were caught and burned by this. Searching the bodies of the dead and prisoners, the KSLI realised they were not up against 12th SS as they had thought, but 9th and 10th SS Panzer Divisions as well. This meant that the Germans were concentrating their armoured reserves on the British left flank (around Caen), leaving very little to resist the Americans in the west. 4th KSLI stayed in their positions at Baron under continuing, sporadic shellfire for exactly 7 days, being relieved by the 4th Hampshires on the night of 4/5th July, when they marched back to their lorries at Cheux.

The 11th Armoured Division

11th Armoured Division lost 100 tanks between 26-29th June and suffered 1,000 casualties (including 33% of all tank crews). This included 25 of the KSLI killed at Baron, whilst 80 were wounded – 25% of their fighting strength. The 15th (Scottish) Division lost over 2,700, an overall 18% casualty rate (but 80% of the fighting troops). They had protected the British bridgehead over the Odon river, whilst more units crossed and assembled behind them. On leaving Baron, 4 KSLI’s CO, Lieutenant-Colonel Miles, suffered the same fate as his brigadier as was replaced by his 2IC. The continued shelling had eventually got to both. Epsom had gained ground, but not as much as hoped. More importantly, all the reserves of German armour were getting sucked into the battles around Caen, such as at Hill 112, denying the Germans a strategic reserve to combat an Allied breakthrough. Why was Hill 112 so important? On the morning of 1st July, Sgt. Moppett of the 1st Herefords (the third battalion in 159th Brigade, with the 3rd Monmouths, and dug in on the right of the KSLI), was sent to patrol up the road which leads to Hill 112 in a Bren Carrier:

"…Arriving at what I thought was the crest, I ordered the men to dismount. We went forward on foot…The sun shone in a blue sky. We could forget there was a war on. Then I saw the turret of a tank on our left. I crawled through the corn with L/Cpl. Morten. It was knocked out. Behind were several more. We returned to the road and moved over the crest. Then I realised why the Germans wanted the hill. You could see for miles – over to Esquay and on to Evercy and right over the Orne river…."

The Germans held onto Hill 112 for over a month, and were never forcibly removed, despite British air superiority and greater numbers of tanks, guns and troops. Later in July, Operation Jupiter was launched by 43rd (Wessex) Division to retake the Hill, but it was never captured. A patrol of 53rd Welsh Division found it abandoned on the night of 3/4th August.

Picture of Hill 112 today

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