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Of Polar Bears and Imps: An unpublished folio of notes compiled by Tom Anderton.

An Episode of Miles

Corporal Harry Bloodworth (Smudger) Smith went ashore at Queen Beach on 8th June with 23 Bomb Disposal Company, R.E. With him 'Smudger Smith' had five men; there was an air raid that night, and in the morning he buried two of them. When the main body arrived, his squad was made up to strength again and ordered to clear a path up the cliffs, along which was to be laid the first submarine cable connecting London with Normandy. The cliff was a ruin, pocked with bomb shell craters, sown with 'Teller' and 'S' mines, like grass-seed, and flecked with fragments of bomb and shell casings, which started the detectors ticking for a false alarm. The mechanical gadgets, which weirdly resembled vacuum cleaners, were blind; a mine, an old tin can or a shell splinter were all the same to them. So when the ticking started, the sapper had to stop and dig around the suspicious object with his hands, very slowly and carefully. After a time, at a buzz which seemed weak, there was a temptation to think, "Oh, that's only a nail", and walk on. But if it was not a nail, but a Teller, there would be a blue flash and nothing after evermore. If it was not a Teller, but an "S" mine, both legs would be amputated and the man might survive; but if he was not a father already, he had lost his chance. Most men preferred the Teller, but some, thinking of Douglas Bader and his two tin legs, did not.


After working for 23 hours, six teams between them had cleared only half the path up the cliff. In terms of nervous strain, they found, five hours mine-lifting was equal to five days with an unexploded bomb. As work ceased, 'Smudger' Smith's best friend stayed behind for a few minutes, marking up the cleared area with white tape. Suddenly he called "Smuager". Smith saw the man standing unnaturally still, and began to climb towards him. "I've had it, Smudger." The words were spoken slowly and carefully, as a warning; and now Smith could see the three prongs of an "S" mine under the soldier's boots. He went back to a distance, as he was trained to do, and when he had reached safety, his friend made an effort to end the suspense and cheat the mine. There was a dull, thudding bung. "We put his remains in a ground sheet," said Smith bitterly, "There wasn't enough meat there to make a meal. I've buried it and I said a prayer over his grave. The others cut a piece of wood from a wrecked boat, and made a cross; and I put his name and number there and left it".


On the following day, his squad was reinforced by another team of five men under Corporal Taylor and because the job was urgent, Taylor went into the minefield himself, which as an NCO he should not have done, and Smith went up behind him. Almost instantly the cliff vomited dust and smoke, there was a thud like a double-barrelled shot-gun being fired, and the remains of Corporal Taylor hurtled, down the cliff, landing at the feet of Smith. Taylor had lost a leg from the knee downwards, and there was a gaping hole in his back, but he was still living. Using a ladder as an improvised stretcher, they got him down off the cliff and into a First Aid Post. That day, as the cable ship had arrived off the beachhead, but the pathway had not been cleared, it was decided to lay the cable at another point which had been so thoroughly plastered by HMS Warspite that there were hardly any mines left unexploded. And here it was finally laid, without casualties.


A few days later, another of his friends, Corporal Reg Beaumont, came back with nine German prisoners - one old sergeant-major with twenty years service, the rest youngsters. They had been cut off for days, sometimes able to hear English voices around, them, but at first they had taken Beaumont prisoner before he was able to convince them that they ought to surrender to him. "I think if Beaumont had had his way, he'd have shot the lot, and I would have too", said Corporal Smith. "I'd lost two uncles in the First World War, it'd been bred into me that the Germans were inhuman and I'd just seen my best friend killed. But I didn't do it, because these chaps seemed to us to be fair; and one of them even had a leave pass valid for the Holiday, when he was to have gone home."

 

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The Birth of the 'Butcher Bears'

Prelude to 'EPSOM': The Battle of Fontenay 25 June.

"After heavy fighting on the severely weakened left of the 12th SS Panzer Division and right of Panzer Lehr Division, attacks by successive waves of enemy troops, supported in the air by continuous enemy sorties, succeeded in tearing open a gap 5km wide and 2km deep" (from the log of German Army Group'B').


"An optimistic picture was painted for the infantry", wrote an historian, "They would receive the strongest of air and artillery support and need not expect to encounter a very stout resistance". As some said, it sounded good. And indeed it looked good for the British, particularly if the map you were studying was that which lay in front of Hubert Meyer, the operation staff officer of 12 SS Panzer Grenadier Division. It showed the line held by 12 SS now very much under strength, as running from Fontenay-le-Pensil, where 30 corps were due to attack, through the area of St. Marvieu and Cheux, opposite the build up of S corps, as far east as Carpiquet airfield, which was an objective of 1 corps. One decimated division of teenagers stood wholly in the path of 8 corps and partly in the path of the other two corps. On their left they would have to face 49th West Riding Division, with some help from their flank division Panzer Lehr; on their right SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment 25 would have to face the Canadians alone, outnumbered five or six to one. But in the centre was the gravest threat, for there elements only of Panzer Regiments 12 and 26 would face the entire weight of 8 corps - 15th Scottish Division, 43 Wessex Division,11th Armoured Division, and 4th Armoured Brigade; 60,000 men, 600 tanks, 700 guns - against a few thousand teenagers.


Meyer knew that this was where the main blow would fall. "Through our wireless reconnaissance we realised that, during the period 22-25 June, strong enemy tank units were massing in readiness in the area west of Norrey-en-Bessin. As a counter measure, we moved up our II Heavy Tank Company behind the main battlefield in the sector of 11 Battalion, Panzer Regiment 26, as a moveable tank defence, excellently camouflaged". These dispositions were to be thrown out by the attack of 49th West Riding Division on Fontenay. The German reaction in turn affected the plans of 49 Division and that in turn affected the main blow by 8 Corps and, in effect, created the 'Scottish Corridor'.


The task of 49 Division, supported by 8 Armoured Brigade, was to take the commanding ridges of Fontenay and Rauray, from which the Germans could sweep the right Flank of the 8 corps advance to the Odon. The heights were to be in their hands by the evening of 25 June, so that the main 'Epsom' assault could be launched next day, 15 Scottish leading. 49 Division had served as the garrison of Iceland, and their divisional sign was the Polar Bear. They included a number of Scottish battalions, but most of the men came from Yorkshire, or thereabouts, and they were therefore twice connected with the 15th Scottish Division, the Highland Brigade of which was partly recruited from the highlands of England, the rest mostly from Aberdeen and Glasgow, the Gorbals contingent bearing distinctive razor-slash badges.


At 0400 on 25 June the guns began to beat away, and the people in Caen heard the distant drumfire along the Odon. "The artillery preparation was immense", wrote an historian of 11 RSF. "Looking back behind me, the sky was lit with flash after flash, increasing rapidly in tempo until the sky was outlined almost in one continuous glow, as mediums, field guns and heavies joined in. The continuous whistle of shells passing low overhead, the stubborn rumble of the guns behind, and the roar of bursting shells ahead." Immediately to tne righr of the RSF on the start line was the Hallamshire Battalion of the York and Lancaster Regiment, with the Lincolns on their right. For them, it was 0415 hrs - Zero hour! Company commanders and platoon commanders shouted to their men to advance, though their voices were drowned in the noise, the long line of men in extended order instinctively moved forward at a steady pace behind the creeping barrage, pausing every now and again as they got too close. Then the unexpected happened. As the two forward companies advanced down the slope through the cornfield, they were swallowed up in a dense mist - a mist so thickened by fumes that it was impossible to see more than a few feet in front of one. Companies, platoons, sections, and even men, deployed for daylight action, began to rapidly lose touch with one another. Soon the lateral road at the bottom of the hill was reached and from there onwards enemy opposition could be expected. It came in the form of a machine gun firing blindly down the road. A quick dash, however, got them over without a casualty, but C Company on the left bumped into and by-passed a Tiger tank sitting on the road junction.


Heavy defensive fire look toll of the attackers at first, but then, as an RSF historian wrote, "Germans and British became inextricably intermingled in the fog, and bitter hand to hand fighting developed where no quarter was given on either side. By midday a firm foothold had been firmly established round the Calvary in the west end of the village of Fontenay. We like to think that it was to some degree a result of the action that 49th Division came to be known in enemy circles as "The Polar Bear Butchers". On the right of the RSF, B Company of the Hallams was now on its objective, the high ground south-west of Fontenay. Of the approximately 120 men who had set out that morning, 2 officers and about 30 men were left, as they began to sort themselves out, and position the 6-pounder infantry anti-tank guns against counter-attack, they heard the roar of heavy tank engines.


Acting as Bren gunner, covering the anti-tank guns against, infantry attack, was Cecil Heald, "We had reached a road junction to the east of Fontenay church on the Caen-Bayeaux road", he recollected, "and were covering the road coming from Caen. A short distance away was a bridge which crossed a stream. Then we heard tank engines and saw three Tigers approaching from the direction of Caen." These were certainly from the 12th SS Panzer Grenadier Division - probably 1 Heavy Tank Company, which was supporting that part of the front; but the tanks may well have been Panthers and not Tigers, the two frequently being confused. The detachment commander, L/Sergeant Thompson, called the gun crew to action stations, then we waited until the first tank was on the bridge, when the order to fire was given. L/Corporal 'Taffy' Williams then fired, destroying the first tank on the bridge, thus blocking the approach from Caen. The second tank turned to the left, exposing its tracks, and 'Taffy' fired again, blowing off the track; his second shot destroying it completely. By now, we were under heavy fire from the third tank, which reversed to the rear and to the right. Taffy was wounded and we carried him to a nearby farmhouse. This third tank was eventually knocked out by a Sherman carrying a 17-pounder gun, which the CO of the Hallums borrowed from the Lincolns for the occasion. "After a while we received orders to evacuate our position and to consolidate with the infantry companies, which had suffered heavy casualties", said Cecil Heald. "We dug in for the night in an orchard facing Caen, covering the left flank, which was exposed as the supporting battalions had not reached their objectives. We were to stand-to all night, as there was considerable enemy firing, and next day we advanced in the direction of Tessel Wood".


The West Riding Division had failed by a large margin to take Rauray, which lay beyond and to the east of Tessel-Brettville. When the Scottish advanced next morning they would be swept by fire from these heights. Nevertheless the 'Butcher Bears' had broken through the German defences, and alarmed 'Sepp' Dietrich, Commanding I SS Panzer Corps, the headquarters controlling 12 SS and 21 Panzer Divisions. So as Cecil Heald was settling down for an uneasy night on the Fontenay ridge, Dietrich was giving orders for II Heavy Tank Company, the last mobile reserves which 12th SS Panzer had in the path of the main advance, to come next morning to move out of that area and counter-attack 49th Division. "The I Heavy Tank Company was already there", recollected Hubert Meyer. "But on the evening of 25th June, I SS Panzer Corps ordered even this last unit to go into action the following morning, to clean up the breakthrough in the vicinity of Panzer Lehr Division on our left flank. We begged the Corps most earnestly to withdraw this order, as we already expected an attack for the following morning by the enemy tank units which, we knew, were west of Norrey. They saw no possibility of complying with our request, perhaps they did not take our wireless reconnaissance evidence seriously enough. So, at 0500 hrs on 26th June, the II Heavy Tank Company assembled for a counter-attack across the line Fonteriay-Tessel- Brettville, in the direction of Juvigny. That left SS Panzer Grenadier Regiment 26 unsupported, directly in the path of 11 Armoured Division, 15 Scottish Division, 21 Armoured Brigade and 43 Division.


At 0700 hrs on 26 June, this great British attack of 500-600 tanks, on a breadth of 5 kilometres, rolled over the Pioneers and the Panzer Grenadiers. Eventually it came to a halt only because our artillery fire separated the enemy infantry from their tanks. Several pockets of resistance did considerable damage. The battle headquarters of the Panzer Grenadier Battalion 12 under Sturmfuher Siegfried Muller had been made into a strong point which was held until well into the night, then the survivors managed to get out to the west of Le Haut du Bosc, and were picked up by some of our tanks advancing in a counter-attack. AS late as 26th June our radio operators picked up radio messages from British tanks attacking the remnants of 3 Pioneer Company, which still held several strong points in the old front line between St. Mauvieu and Fontenay. We tried to convince I SS panzer Corps that a well-planned counter-attack by tank units trom the south-west might restore the original front, or at least, relieve the surrounded units, but fresh forces were not available.

 

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The Battalion that Failed

While most infantry battalions managed to overcome the- shock of the incessant shelling, attacks, and appalling casualties of the Normandy battle and 'soldier on', a few couldn't. There, was for instance, the battalion of the 49th. Division which fell completely apart that June.


The battalion had been formed mainly of territorials with a few regular officers and NCOs and had spent the first two years of its war in Iceland, remote from any kind of action. Here it trained and trained, fished, played rugger and won brigade boxing matches. Two more, years of training followed - back in the U.K. Now after four years these fine young men in their mid-twenties, who had never fired a shot in anger, faced up to the 18 year olds of the Hitler Youth Division, who were like them, greenhorns, save in one respect - their officers and NCOs were all veterans of the fighting on the Russian front. In addition, many of these SS teenagers were fanatics; for half of them - 10,000 strong - were, volunteers straight from the Hitler Youth movement. The battalion advanced as they had been taught to advance in those four long years of training, covered by a rolling barrage of four artillery regiments, protected by tanks. But they had not calculated with the Norman terrain - the bocage. In a short time they had lost the tanks among the hedges and the barrage had lost them in the same fashion.


Into the woods they went. There was the high-pitched, hysterical hiss of the German 42s firing a thousand rounds a minute. Snipers who had dodged the tanks popped up everywhere, picking off officers and NCOs, easily identifiable because they carried revolvers or wore nicely painted white stripes and were, linked to the radio man. There was the obscene howl and stonk of the German mortars. The 'moaning minnies', their six-barrelled electrically-fired mortars, shrieked into the afternoon sky, dragging long plumes of white smoke behind them. Casualties started to mount. Still the battalion persisted in its first attack and then they had done it. They had turfed the 53 out and were consolidating their position.


Now, however, things began to go wrong for the new boys. They were unable to evacuate their mounting casualties; the only track to the rear was extensively mined. No food could be brought up either and there was nothing to eat but the bitter iron-hard chocolate bar of the iron-ration. Snipers started to reappear in the deepest part of the wood, again singling out officers and NCOs. An intensive artillery and mortar barrage descended upon the hard-pressed Yorkshiremen and then the SS came again, shrieking as if they were drunk or doped or both. And they were supported by tanks.


The infantry began to give way. Desperately their officers held them together. But there was no stopping that backward motion. Here, and there, there were brave men who sacrificed themselves to hold the ground they had won at such cost. But it was no use. The leaders - the officers and NCOs - were being killed and wounded all the time and the heart started to go out of the others. In the end they were driven back to where they had started, having lost some 240 men. In their first action after four years of training they had suffered nearly 30% casualties.


One week later, on Sunday 25th June 1944, the 49th Division was scheduled to attack again. Under a new CO, with its ranks filled out with reinforcements, the battalion in question moved forward to its start position, plodding up a large-slope covered in corn, and criss-crossed with the tracks of many armoured vehicles - German. There was absolutely no cover, but luck was with them, so far at least. They crossed the stream which bordered the field and began to climb the slope beyond. Now some mortar shells began to fall on the infantrymen coming up the slope through the trees, but casualties were light and the officers were optimistic.


They had good reason to be. The Hitler Youth was bleeding to death. It, was currently being attacked by one armoured division - the 11th - and two infantry divisions, the 49th and the 15th Scottish. There were simply not enough men to cover the whole front. Hastily, as the battalion started to dig in at their objective on the top of the height, 'Panzermeyer' - as the divisional commander of the Hitler Youth, General Kurt Meyer, was nick-named - ordered his last reserve, the Reconnaissance Battalion, to go in and do what they could.


The Reconnaissance Battalion was led by an officer after Kurt Meyers Heart, 25yr old Cert Bremer, who from being a flunkey at Hitler's court before the war, had now seen action in half a dozen countries, winning every decoration for bravery the Third Reich had to offer. Instantly Bremer ordered what was left of his 'Jungs' as he liked to call his teenagers, into action. Although they had, not been trained really as infantry and ammunition was short, they moved close to the British positions and set about mortaring them with frightening ferocity.


What happened next was a complete breakdown of the battalion. The men reacted hysterically when their comrades were hit, as officer after officer was killed or wounded. Even the firing of their artillery set them off in a panic. Discipline collapsed. Officers and NCOs began to rip off their badges of rank so that they would not be an obvious target for Bremer's infiltrators. As the battalion commander later reported to Montgomery: "I have twice stood at the end of a track and drawn my revolver on retreating men... Three days running a major has been killed... because I have ordered him in effect to stop them running during mortar concentrations". Then he himself admitted defeat, "I refuse to throw away any more good lives". His opinion, he stressed, was shared by two fellow commanders.


Montgomery did not accept the Colonel's findings. He believed there were no bad troops, just bad officers. Just as in the case of the Salerno mutiny, he blamed the officers, not the men. Forwarding his report on the matter to the War Office, he stated that the battalion would be broken up as unfit for battle and the survivors returned to the U.K. He appended a hand-written note, 'I consider the CO displayed a defeatist mentality, and is not a proper chap'.


Thus the rot was stopped and those officers and men who were not 'proper chaps' disappeared into obscurity, in disgrace, or into the 'glass houses' which were beginning to appear in Normandy now. There again 'soldiers under sentence' would be offered remission of their sentence if they went up the line. Few accepted. They preferred the harshness of the glasshouse to the swift lethal violence of the front.


Even today, over 40 years later, it is difficult to get any further details of this battalion. Public records are not forthcoming and there seems to be a kind of conspiracy of silence on the matter in the area where the battalion was recruited.

Editor's Note

This email was received, from Ian Taylor, on 26th November 2010

"I have just come across your excellent web-site. I am sure that I will not be the first to tell Tom Anderton, author of "Of Polar Bear and Imps" within which he has written a section on 'The Battalion that failed', that the Battalion he refers to is 6 Duke of Wellington's. The story is quite well told by Max Hastings, in his book 'Overlord', (pp 148-9) published in 1984. As you can imagine the DWRs Regimental History depicts the battle for Le Parc de Boislande as a glorious failure. The CO at the time was Lt Col KG Exham MC - Montgomery's letter to the CO is reproduced in the Duke'e History (opposite p.194). Best Wishes to the Tenth!"

 

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Tanks and infantry pushing forward south from Escoville

Tanks and infantry pushing forward south from Escoville

 

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The Scottish Corridor (to the Odon and Hill 112)

On 25 June, while the 'Butcher Bears' were fighting for Fontenay, the infantry of the 15th Scottish Division were marching to their assembly areas behind the start-line. Clouds of fine white dust enveloped the sweating, heavily laden men. Now they appreciated the purpose of all those seemingly meaningless, endless route marches they had cursed so much in training. Their eyes took in those signs which showed that this was no exercise - piles of rubble which had once been villages - Brettville l'Orguielleuse, Norrey-en-Bessin, le Mesnil-Patry - piles of discarded equipment, a holed steel helmet, the blackened hull of a Sherman. No sound came from the marching files, except the slush of boots through the dust. There was no singing for this was the time before battle. The generals of a previous century had known what they were doing, when they supplied bands to play the regiments into action. A man needs war-drums at such a moment.


Up to now, even the 'I' section had not known the plan of attack, but that day they struggled with a sand model of the battlefield, while the guns of Fontenay thundered ceaselessly in the distance.


"How impressive seemed those plans, the enemy defences were to be hammered mercilessly by 250 bombers and a 'Monty' barrage, until they cracked; then we could pour through the gap, sweeping ail before us. Our flanks were to be secured by 49 Div. who promised faithfully to capture Rauray prior to our attack. The plan was for 46 Brigade to capture Cheux, and 44 Brigade to clear St, Mauvieu. Then 227 Brigade would take part. Their main objectives the crossings over the River Odon, which were to be captured by the Argylls after 10 HLI had prepared the way on the right by the capture of Grainville-sur-Odon. The Gordons on the left were to clear Coleville and exploit forward. The crowning blow was to be made by 11 Armoured Division, who were to crash through the gap and make for the high ground at Baron and Hill 112, before turning east and seizing crossings over the River Orne. Pity the Germans who were to try to withstand it."


That night, as if the guns had been thunder, it began to rain; huddled under the miserable shelter of trees, the tired men dozed fitfully, the rain-drops falling on their faces; and then the drizzle became a downpour and there was no more sleep. Stiff and chilled, long before dawn, they were walking about or stamping their feet to get warm, and waiting for a mug of tea and a mess-tin full of bacon and biscuit. Four years of training - for this.


Then 700 guns opened fire from the fields around them, with a savage, deafening concussion which stunned the ears and dulled the mind. As they went forward through the drizzling rain, through ruined villages, the few inhabitants gazed at them sullenly and silently; perhaps it was pity for the doomed men, but the soldiers did not understand it and were disconcerted by this contrast with war-films and propaganda.


"All ranks, had heard much of the sufferings of France under the Occupation, also many tales of the French Resistance, but these Normans seemed unimpressed by the turn of events. In our few days ashore, we had gathered that some of the women had married German soldiers and there was a general air of caution - a reluctance to accept the presence of the invaders as a change for the better. 'The Bosche had said that he would be back in three weeks', we were told. A Gordon officer who wanted the use of a barn to shelter his men was told by the farmer that it could not be permitted, as the barn was the property of the Third Reich. Food was abundant and it seemed that in Normandy the German behaviour had been correct.


AS they marched up the road to Putot-en-Bessin, under the continuous moaning and wailing of the shells, there was ahead a new and uneasy sound. The continuous rippling noise of machine-guns, a high pitched rattle quite unlike the slower, regular beat of the Brens. But the advance was going slowly, there were many hours spent waiting by the roadside. After Putot-en-Bessin they came to the first signs of battle - two Churchill tanks blown up in a minefield short of the Caen road, their crews laughing and joking with the 'Jocks' as they passed, overexcited at their escape from both death and battle; then a dead 'Jock', huddled up, rifle at the ready. Another halt was ordered just short of the Caen road.


"A threat to our right flank was developing from Rauray, where 60 tanks were reported. Our friends of 49 Division had failed us; so had the bombers we had been so faithfully promised. Both flanks 'up in the air', we had to go on. Cheux was cleared, St Mauvieu taken, so our time had arrived. It was late afternoon when we were ordered forward in extended order across the Caen road towards Cheux, every man keyed up and searching each fold in the ground for snipers, though as yet not a shot had been fired at our leading troops. When within fifty yards of the road, a young German in a camouflaged uniform rose up from the long grass almost under the muzzle of a Sten gun which killed him instantly. This was purely a nervous reaction on the part of the owner, and the only case I was to see of a German being killed for no reason. The rain came down with teeming ferocity and the darkening sky portended a wet and dreary night. The orchard area of Le Haut de Bosc was reached without incident, and we had left behind the forward troops of 46 Brigade, but the rain and lowering sky made control difficult, direction was lost in the orchards, and then we struck trouble. Machine-guns opened up at the leading companies, which, shocked by the suddenness of it, went to ground. Our leading tanks replied, the tracer ricocheting in all directions, a source of fear to all and sundry, Scottish and German. Each time the leading companies tried to advance, they were met by heavy fire, and thy advance petered out."


As the attack had lost direction and gone astray, the CO decided to regroup in Cheux, before advancing once more through the orchards of Le Haut du Bosc towards Grainville.


"When we entered Cheux that day the only dead to be seen were two REs on the pavement. A mortar shell bursting at their feet, had blown them open like peeled oranges. This must have happened only minutes before, because the the bloom had not yet left their faces. Yet as the day progressed, I was to pass them many times, lying obscenely exposed to the mounting layers of dust which slowly covered them; I have got used to seeing them, but as Cheux was slowly pounded into rubble, someone got them before they were buried under the falling masonry."


Cheux was rapidly becoming a bottle-neck jammed with rubble and wrecked vehicles, with two divisions and two brigades trying to pass through one narrow street. 31 Tank Brigade, with its slow moving but heavily armoured Churchills, some of them equipped with flame-throwers, went forward with the infantry. As soon as they had reached the Caen road, which ran parallel to the front between St. Mauvieu and Cheux, 11 Armoured Division was to advance, with its 25th Brigade leading. In the usual 'two up and one behind' style. 23 Hussars and 2 Fife & Forfar Yeomanry advanced, followed by 3 Royal Tank Regiment as reserve. 'C' Squadron of 23 Hussars by-passed Cheux to the east, although the remainder went through the village and, working their way through difficult country, supported the advance of 2 Gordons on Coleville. 'C' Squadron was therefore separated from the rest of the regiment by the Cheux traffic-jam. The greatest part of 2 Gordons, including Battalion HQ, were likewise held in the jam, and only two companies attacked Colleville - 'A' and 'B'. 'A' was pinned in a cornfield by mortar fire, but 'B' Company, quite alone, actually got into Coleville. The rest of the Battalion were motionless in the traffic hold-up.


Eventually, 'C' Squadron of 23 Hussars was joined by 'B' Squadron, and they tried to help the infantry forward. The Churchills in close support were clearly having a very bad time.


"As soon as one of them showed itself over the crest, it drew fire: and there were already three or four in flames in front of us."


'B' Squadron moved forward past the flaming hulks and 'C' went down the slope to help the infantry. As with the Churchills, so with the Shermans; as soon as the leading tank showed itself it was hit and set on fire. This was the first tank to be destroyed in action. Those who witnessed it will always remember the shock of seeing, for the first time, one of the Regiment's tanks go up in flames. One moment an impregnable monster, with perhaps a crew containing some of one's best friends, forging irrisistably towards the enemy; the next, a crack of terrific impact, a sheet of flame, and then, where there had been a tank, nothing but a helpless, roaring inferno.


Map - Epsom (25 June - 2 July, Charnwood (4-10 July), Goodwood (18-20 July, Totalize (14-16 August).

 

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Saturation Bombing

Even in their rest area near Norrey, spectators of the struggle for Carpiquet, the men of 10 HLI could not relax; the tension, and the memories of battle, were with them yet; perhaps for always.


"Hourly we expected the sudden call, 'panic stations', which would send us once more into the horror of sudden battle", wrote. Sergeant Green. "Timidly, we clung to the immediate vicinity of our slit trench. For a whole week, we had learned the hard way that to stay above ground invited sudden death; such instincts are not lost in a day - to be honest, I doubt if any man could say that the shadow ever left him. Gradually, however, the quiet began to ease our distorted nerves and, like children first learning to walk, we day by day wandered further away from our haven of safety, but with one ear always cocked for the scream that would denote an approaching shell. Were these the young soldiers, who but a short week before had been inoculated into the most horrible way of dying ever devised? Watch the group over there. Creep up and listen. Are they laughing at some smutty joke? Boasting about their latest female conquest? A few words drift over.


  • There was Smudger coming across the field with his dinner in one hand, when over comes a Moaning Minnie. What does he do? You know what Smudger's like when it, comes to grub! He puts the dinner down carefully, then high-dives like a sack o' tatties into a hole. When the dust settles, out pops Smudger looking for his grub, and the ruddy Moaner has blown it to bits.
  •  
  • You can see: Smudger grin sheepishly, and hear his reply.
  •  
  • 'If I could have caught the basket that fired that ruddy gun, there'd be another good Jerry in the world!
  •  
  • They are laughing at what were tragedies but a few short days ago. In the midst of death, the Jock had found new life, now he was able to hold his own in any company. Had he not faced every form of death and survived?
  •  
  • The sudden shock of losing one's best friend, his life snuffed out like a candle, was getting to be as casual as lighting a fag, not that we didn't recoil with horror and stomach revolting, but we were getting used to not thinking about such things; hiding them in the recesses of the mind, to be remembered for ever, but never aloud. Vividly, we recounted the way 'old Shiner' or 'Taffy' had caught a packet; a moments silence as each story ended, for unspoken thoughts. Were we callous? Who may judge? No man, however he may talk, has the remotest idea of what an ordinary infantry soldier endures.
  •  
  • "Then one day came the unique opportunity of watching another battle - as spectators this time. The Canadians were attacking Carpiquet aerodrome on our left and too well we appreciated the task they had been set. How we cheered as the drone of engines set us gazing aloft, to see specks coming nearer until an unending stream of Lancasters came into sight and began to unload their bombs with shattering devastation. “That's the stuff to give 'em!”, we howled in unison, the smoke and dust billowing up till the sky was black with man-made clouds. How could anyone be alive after that?, we asked ourselves; but still there were Jerries holding out, there always seem to be."

But Carpiquet was still untaken, for this was the evening of the 7th of July. The bombers target was not Carpiquet airfield, but the city of Caen itself, a few miles distant. The greatest single atrocity of the Normandy campaign had been committed.

 

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Nebelwerfer - "Moaning Minnie"

Nebelwerfer - Moaning Minnie
Nebelwerfer - Moaning Minnie
Nebelwerfer - Moaning Minnie

 

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A Stabilised Front

"Talk about the BLA — it's the BDA — the Bloody Destruction Army, "wrote a gunner officer of the 49th Division to his parents on 27th July. "This stabilised front area is just like Flanders must have been - every building a pile of rubble, every field a showpiece of a soldiers desire to get underground, if he's stopping for five minutes. My own OP is just in front of a village which must have been, very old and quaint, not to mention beautiful. Now, all that stands above ground level are two burnt out Panthers and a Tiger balanced on its nose, one of the Panthers still housing the charred remains of two of Europe’s chosen race. The stink is appalling; I am sure I smell just as bad as those two Gerries lying downstairs, and they, I should imagine, have been there some time. I am sorry for the Norman peasant who will have to reclaim his ravished fields and home. I am at the moment in the attic of my shattered farmhouse; how in earth the stairs haven't been hit I don't know; they are the only thing that hasn't. My Ac. is observing. He is an Irishman from Sligo — a deserter from the Eirann Army. I have just finished reading the log of the chap I took over from. Last entry reads as follows:- 'waiting for 481 to relieve me so that I can hand over 1 shattered Normandy farm plus normal accoutrements and the dead, which include two Germans, 1 grave (British, unknown), 1 cow, 1 horse, 2 pigs, and a chick.'


Prisoners, more often they are deserters, are very funny the way they behave. Two came in the other day, saying they were Poles — but one turned out to be Bavarian, and the other Austrian. They thought they would get preferential treatment that way. A couple of real Poles came in and volunteered the information that the Germans always put one Pole and one German to share a dugout. The spokesman said, "I saw my mate running across the field, and I looked down and saw my German asleep, so I just bashed him and ran across too." For every round Gerry fires, we give him a hundred, so its no wonder these Poles, Belgians, Russians, Austrians, etc., whose hearts were never in the war, desert in large numbers. However, the German field units near us are all SS and certainly know how to fight. We've had some hard battles with them, and know just how good they are and their weak spots. Another point is that a lot of us (including yours truly; have got dysentery, some badly. It is the swarm of flies we have; but there is nothing to be done about it. Sanitation has been pretty good throughout the Regiment, yet everybody I have met has got it fairly prevalent in their unit. It is largely due, I think, to some very bad sanitation by Gerry; more particularly by foreigners or units with foreigners in, than by German SS units, for example.


"Jerry's mosquito-ridden mortar and 60mm range", was what the British called their share of the 'stabilised front'; there was a constant drain of casualties. But as Joe Illingworth, the Yorkshire Post war correspondent, wrote of the British soldiers; "He belongs to a race that has covered the map red, and all he wants are the green fields of England. If you picture him in any other way you will forget who he is. Here is no massive figure flashing through some legendary scene. This soldier is your neighbour and mine."


And first of all he liked his sleep. He could never get enough of it, for in action he never got any. Battles are not fought by keen-eyed, bright-faced young heroes but by drugged men, walking in a daze, jumpy from strain and lack of rest.


"In the first case", said a Major, "the destiny of them all is determined by the Battalion Commanders, who give out their orders, having had two hours sleep in the last twenty-four; then the Company Commanders, trying to awaken the young platoon leaders from their death-like slumber; all of them heavy and drained, of energy. Thirty minutes to make plans, then they lead their men against the spandaus, the everlasting mortars, to the first, the second, and the third objective."


When the advance stops and the front is stabilised, they get their heads down if they can. A soldier of the 4Sth Division, after 60 hours of combined waiting and action, wrapped himself up in his gas cape in the bottom of his slit, and had barely dropped off when he was woken by a German at two in the morning. The German shook him awake, saying urgently, "Kamerad, Tommy, Kamerad". The soldier stirred and grunted, "Wot after 60 hours - Bugger orf and find some other fellow and let this one sleep."


After sleep, food. Good farming country - Normandy - and the rations, designed with a shipping shortage in mind, were deficient in a good deal; so much so, that bread and potatoes were luxuries. Consequently, men would go foraging; and the best spots were those occupied by nobody. Hence, on a misty July morning, just before first light on Tessel Wood, another KOYLI, private crept forward cautiously, rifle at the ready. But you can't pick spuds with a rifle in your hand. So he laid it down and as he moved along the rows of 'pomme de terre', saw another early riser similarly engaged. As they slowly moved together along the row, they realised that they, represented opposing forces. The British soldier’s rifle was 30 yards behind him, and he made for it like a deer, the German panting frantically after him, waving a Schineisser (the MP 40 Machine pistol). But the German caught up, breathing hard, and handed over his weapon. The Englishman proudly paraded his prisoner back, hands on head, to where his section were dug in. "Never mind about him", they said, "where the devil are the spuds?"


And after food... well, there wasn't any beer. Indeed, B Day, the day of the first beer issue in the beach-head, was a memorable occasion, remembered for long weeks afterwards. But there was one soldier of one unit, both nameless, although he came from Sussex, who was in the not unusual position of holding a forward position, with a house in front still occupied by the inhabitants, but not apparently by the Germans. Some French families were inevitably cut off like this between the opposing forces, sometimes for weeks. The Sussex man noted that there were women coming out of the house, and going in again. One of the women was young; they clearly had no cigarettes and he had. So he took a very long detour, it being suicide to crawl directly across, got to the house, introduced himself, had the young woman, and looking out of the window, afterwards, found himself looking down onto a spandau on a tripod mounting, its three men crew lounging beside it, smoking. He could have plopped a grenade into the middle of them, if he'd had one. But, as he said, he wouldn't have been so silly, anyway; obviously the Germans were using the house for the same purpose as he had. But he was most annoyed with the young woman, for not mentioning the Germans. "I could have got shot in a most unmilitary position", he complained.

 

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Tiger Tank

Tiger Tank
This Tiger tank monument stands at the eastern exit road to Vimoutier, France.
All Tigers of sSS-PzAbt.101 were destroyed in Normandy, 1944.

 

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The Lincoln Imp Polar Bear, 49th Division, Divisional Flash

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