"A Short History of the 7th Armoured Division June 1943 - July 1945"
This book gives what appears to be an accurate account of events and many photographs and maps. I have transcribed all of Chapter iv, "The Invasion of Europe: First Battle of Villers Bocage and subsequent defence of the bridgehead", which covers in detail the Battle of the "Brigade Box" or "The Island" as it calls it. Accompanying the book are a number of maps which relate to the text, many are too large to scan, however I am happy to provide copies to anyone interested (perhaps a small sum to cover copying and postage?) Click hear to view text only file (printable version)
1944-the 1st of July, 1944
The place selected for the invasion of Europe, namely the stretch of coast between the mouths of the rivers Orne and Vire, was perhaps one of the best kept secrets of the war. Before describing the Division’s part in the planning and the execution of the initial battles, it is worth while to review briefly the enemy’s situation, and the country to be fought over, in order to understand the reason for this choice and the nature of the subsequent fighting.
By the end of 1941, having lost the battle for air supremacy, the Germans abandoned all plans to force a decision in the west by offensive sea-borne operations. The initiative was now in the hands of the Allies, and to counter it, the Germans set to work to fortify the coast of Europe from Norway to the Bay of Biscay, and also along the North Mediterranean. Clearly it was impracticable to notify every mile with the same degree of strength, even excluding those areas in which natural obstacles needed no reinforcement. They were therefore forced to concentrate upon the ports and those areas which seemed the most likely objectives for a landing: in their view the beaches of the Pas de Calais and Flanders, from which the British Army had been evacuated in 1940. By the beginning of 1944, however steps had been taken to secure a more even distribution of defensive strength, and much work was put into building new defences, in addition to improving existing obstacles along other sections of the coast. But time and the necessary equipment were insufficient and were found that many emplacements on the Normandy coast, designed for coastal artillery, in fact contained only field guns.
The enemy’s plan was to defend the coast-line with tired, second rate Divisions containing a high proportion of foreigners. Behind them were field infantry divisions for immediate counter-attack, and concentrated in strategic areas to the rear were the Panzer, Parachute and Infantry divisions of the counter-offensive force. It was hoped that the coastal defences would hold up the landing and subsequent build-up sufficiently long to allow the counter offensive forces to be assembled for a crushing blow which would drive the invaders into the sea. Thus by “D”, the coastal crust on Second Army’s front was held by one second-line infantry division, with two of its regiments in the line occupying static concrete positions scattered along the coast at intervals of approximately 2000 yards. Behind them, south-west of Bayeux, was 352 Infantry Division. The two nearest Panzer Divisions, 12 SS and 21 Panzer Divisions, were within easy reach at Falaise and Bernay respectively; while two further Panzer Divisions, 17 SS South of the Loire and 2 Panzer at Amiens, would probably get into position by the evening of D + I. These Divisions were equipped mainly with Panther and Tiger Tanks, both more heavily armoured than our own tanks, and mounting a gun which, in the case of the Panther, was the equal of our 17 pounder, with the additional advantage that it could fire HE, and, in the case of the Tiger, superior to any tank or anti-tank gun we possessed. In the Normandy fighting their heavy armour and armament amply compensated for any disadvantage they might have had due to their lack of speed, though this latter factor, coupled with a lower standard of mechanical reliability, was to tell heavily against the enemy during the great advances.
The Normandy countryside is sharply divided between the “campagne” and the “bocage”, with a narrow belt of marsh-land running along the greater part of the sea-shore. The “campagne” consists mainly of open, rolling plain, almost entirely under crops, intersected by narrow and well-wooded river valleys. Its villages are of compact , solid grey stone buildings centred around the tall towers of their rich churches, and ringed with orchards. Trees are few and mostly confined to the roads or occasional woods. From the coast this belt is at its narrowest around Bayeux, gradually widening out slightly South of the main Bayeux-Caen road and extending to a broad belt between the rivers Orne and Dives as far as Falaise. To the West and South-West of Bayeux was the “bocage”. If viewed from about it appears almost continuous forest, but in fact it is a maze of small fields and numerous orchards, surrounded by high-banked hedges of pollarded trees. Apart from the main roads, endless narrow, muddy tracks, almost tunnels between the tall hedges of thorns, briars, gorse, broom and hazel, connect the hamlets and small farms. The “bocage” is not, however, everywhere so impenetrable, and South-East of Caumont towards Aunay and the Orne valley is a pleasant country of open pasture and cornland interspersed with numerous small woods and orchards. Above all towers Mont Pincon, its lower slope covered in thick woods, chestnuts, beeches, oaks and firs, and its summit open heather and gorse, a ridge which was to be our objective for so long. When we did finally ascend it we found that, owing to the close nature of the countryside, its tactical value for observation was negligible.
Briefly then, the coast of Calvados was selected as being the most suitable accessible beach with a reasonable road-net behind. The only approaches on the enemy’s side lay over the Seine or the Loire, whose bridges had received the full attention of the RAF, and on the West flank lay the tempting prize of Cherbourg at the head of the narrow Contentin peninsula. The Allied plan was to land on a front of some thirty miles, protected by initial air-borne landings, with the Americans making for the crossings over the Vire and thence for Cherbourg, and the British securing the crossings over the Orne and the road centres of Bayeux and Caen. In particular, on Second Army’s front, three main landings were to be made, following the initial Commando and Airborne landings, whose objective was the crossings over the River Orne, North of Caen; on the left-hand sector 1st British Corps with 3rd British and 3rd Canadian Divisions, supported in each case by an Armoured Brigade; on the right-hand sector, on the Arromanches and le Hamel beaches, 30 Corps with 50th Division, supported by 8th Armoured Brigade. The subsequent build-up in the absence of a natural harbour, was to be operated from a pre-fabricated artificial port – the “Mulberry”.
Planning at the Divisional level for these operations comprised, first, the operational and intelligence plans; secondly, the shipping plan.
For this purpose a Tactical Headquarters was set up with Second Army at Ashley Gardens, near Victoria Station, an arrangement that permitted the cares of planning, at least for the junior staff, to be lightened by other attractions.
There was much work to be got through in a very limited period, in the analysis of air photographs, intelligence reports, and the preparation of maps and diagrams, arrangements for concentration areas near the embarkation ports, liaison with the naval forces involved, numerous conferences, and finally the continual stream of amendments to earlier plans inevitable in an operation of this kind.
The shipping plan, in essence, was simple enough. The Armoured Brigade, less 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade, was to sail in assault landing craft, landing on “D” Day and D + 1, whilst the Infantry Brigade, the operational section of the echelons and the bulk of the headquarters were to sail in Liberty ships and coasters. In theory , therefore, equipped with the knowledge of the number and the capacity of the ships it should have been possible to fill them in the most economical manner with those vehicles and men most urgently required. In fact, owing to constant fluctuations in the war establishments and shipping allotment, inevitable as different services and different formations struggled to secure the acceptance of their claims, no final decision was achieved until shortly before we moved to the concentration area. The loading of the landing ships and craft at Ipswich was arranged by the Divisional Principal Military Landing Officer and his harassed staff which was a considerable convenience, as, although he was equally involved in the sudden and unexpected appearance of strange and vital units of the Navy, Base RE or RAF in his ships, he was, at least, on the spot in both the planning and embarkation stages to make a final decision. The Liberty ships and coasters were to have been loaded in accordance with the tables prepared by the War Office, usually supplied by formations with inadequate data of the types and numbers of men and vehicles, but in fact, their meticulous plans were, as far as the Division was concerned, sometimes ignored by knowledgeable men in bowler hats who leant over the side of the ship shouting: “Bring on that on there; -- what the bloody officers say, I bin loading ships for forty years and know what they’ll `old.” In fairness to the men in bowler hats they were right, and the caravans and cook-houses which, according to the War Office, were supposed to be some two feet less than their actual height , were accommodated without difficulty, even though this was little consolation for the ardours and anxieties of the previous few weeks. Meanwhile, the remainder of the Division stayed behind, waiting its turn in accordance with predetermined, but much amended, priority tables to fill those ships that returned from the Beaches. By all accounts this period was not wasted.
Early in May, the greater part of the Division moved down from Norfolk to concentrate and complete water-proofing. The Armoured Brigade went to join the fleet of landing craft at Ipswich, the Infantry Brigade, the supply services, and 1st Battalion the Rifle Brigade partly to West Ham, near the London Docks, partly to Brentwood, near the Tilbury Docks.
The Movement Control and Camp staffs probably suffered most by this, Middle East nonchalance proving an easy winner against English exactitude. Harassed Movement Control Officers, grasping damp and slightly uncontrolled masses of paper, would plough their way through a maze of tricks and counter-ticks to enquire what had happened to “one 3-tonner 4 by 4, GS” which was missing from some column, only to be met with the bland assurance that it was sure to be all right, and wasn’t that one of the “buckshee” ones?
The water-proofing was carried out partly by Regiments themselves, partly by the Brigade workshops and, owing to the shortage of supplies and to the frequent failure of those responsible to insert vital parts in what were alleged to be complete kits, was a nightmare. It was hard, dirty and monotonous work, and it is to the credit of those concerned that not a single vehicle was “drowned” on landing for mechanical reasons.
Accommodation was indifferent, but fortunately the worst we had to suffer were dust-storms of an almost desert intensity which swirled round the tents, and the far worse enemy of rain never appeared to make us completely miserable. Moreover, as many of the Division were now quartered within easy reach of their homes, until the camps were “sealed”, much could be endured. With the sealing of the camps more serious difficulties arose, as it was felt that, with an enormous fleet lying for all the world to see, particularly those civilians who journeyed every day to and from the concentration area, it required little imagination on the part of any enemy agent to work out the reasons. The troops had been told nothing, so there was no danger of a lapse in security on their part, and the sudden absence from the streets of London of large numbers of “Desert Rats” might only have served to confirm the suspicion that something was imminent in the near future. Large chalked notices appeared advertising the location of Stalag Xb”, and in one camp the troops made their own somewhat liberal interpretation of the “sealing” regulations by employing a steam-roller to destroy the wire.
By the 28th of May plans were complete and the General Officer Commanding briefed all officers in the garrison cinema at Brentwood. 22nd Armoured Brigade were to land on the beaches already secured by 50th (Northumbrian) Division and to concentrate around Ryes, some two and a half miles from the beaches, starting on the evening of “D” Day. Meanwhile, 50th Division were assumed to have captured Bayeux and secured the road from there to Tilly-sur-Seulles. 22nd Armoured Brigade, with as much of the Division as was available, was then to pass through to Mont Pincon, via Villers Bocage and Aunay-sur-Odon. Having secured a firm base on the Mont Picon feature, the armour was then to turn East Thury Harcourt and the crossings over the Orne.
On the 4th of June, 22nd Armoured Brigade embarked at Felixstowe, followed shortly by the rest of the Division from the London and Tilbury Docks. The worst sufferers were those men of the Armoured Brigades in the LCT*, vessels originally designed for short passages only, and with no permanent accommodation for the troops. The naval crews, however, co-operated magnificently to lighten their discomforts by sharing sleeping and cooking facilities. The other craft, LSTs and Liberty ships, did have arrangements of a sort, and, although misgivings were inevitable on first viewing the cramped, murky holds in which we had to live, most of us got hot food and a space to lay our bodies. In any case, to a Middle East formation, the hardships of sea-faring were nothing new.
Meanwhile we lay at anchor watching the enormous assembly of ships, ranging from the trim warships to the oldest and dirtiest collier that would float, and watching more anxiously the sky. The barometer was falling and a South-West wind, with sharp rain-squalls, freshening all the time. We knew the invasion was being delayed, but the question was; would we have to endure the appalling anti-climax of waiting for next month’s tides? Fortunately for everyone’s morale, the decision was taken to ignore the weather and carry on, and we set sail for what proved to be, comparatively, a very uneventful journey, bearing in mind that the whole fleet passed under the Channel guns in broad daylight. Innumerable patrol vessels and aircraft dropped smoke-floats to screen us, but with the strong wind these were soon dissipated. For some twenty-five minutes after sighting the French coast not a gun fired, until at last the first huge splashes rose among the convoy, some three-quarters down its length, to be followed in a few seconds by a second salvo securing a hit for’ ard on one of the Liberty ships, in which started to “brew”, until we left her far astern enveloped in black smoke. From then on to the beaches the voyage was unopposed, and this incident was typical of the voyage of almost every convoy in early days.
The Armoured Brigade landed successfully in the morning of D + I, the 7th of June, having delayed twelve hours by the weather, which steadily worsened until the landing programme was soon forty-eight hours behind. Nevertheless, few vehicles were lost. More and more ships congregated off the beaches, bombed at night with singularly little effect, and occasionally shelled as they came inshore by those batteries still holding out. Indeed, the unloading of the Liberty ships was a most hazardous operation. LCTs came alongside, rising six feet amidships with every wave and constantly yawning away. While the vehicles escaped with only some strain on their springs, their crews had to jump for it from a rope ladder, involving a considerable degree of physical and nervous agility, particularly to those whose occupation was normally sedentary.
The Armoured Brigade, less 1st Rifle Brigade and much of its transport, having successfully concentrated by the evening of the 7th of June, the next morning was required to take part in a series of what were in fact, purely infantry operations until the 12th of June. 50th Division had been successful in their landing, had captured Bayeux intact, and advanced South on the Tilly and Caen roads for about three miles, with their flanks resting on the rivers Aure and Seulles. Enemy pockets, however, still remained North of Bayeux at Sully and Port-en-Bessin, which 56th Brigade, supported by 5th royal Tanks, were given to clear. This task proved typical of all tank fighting in the bocage. The closeness of the country meant that tanks and anti-tank guns usually engaged at ranges of fifty yards and upwards. Infantry could approach unprotected tanks unseen, and once succeeded in boarding one of our tanks; and snipers, as often as not merely infantry soldiers offensively trained in the use of the rifle, were extremely active. However, the regiment, after much hard fighting, succeeded in destroying four 88mm guns, one 75mm gun and one self-propelled 30mm. Meanwhile, 1st Royal Tanks and 4th County of supporting 69th Infantry Brigade in the St Leger area and 151st Brigade in the area of Jerusalem cross-roads.
By the 10th of June, it was considered that the build-up was sufficiently advanced for offensive operations by armour directed on Tilly-sur-Seulles and Villers Bocage. No unexpected enemy formations had so far been identified, except for two battalions of cyclists with a few self-propelled guns whose interventions North-West of Bayeux, after an exhausting pedal, had had no appreciable effect upon the battle. 32nd Infantry Division were in front of us and 12 SS fighting on our left, North-West of Caen. 8th Armoured Brigade had made good progress and were now in the outskirts of St. Pierre less than a mile from Tilly. Accordingly, the plan was to pass 22nd Armoured Brigade through 50th Division, and to follow up with 56th Royal Tanks were to advance on the right to Verrieres, through Blary, Ellon and Folliott, and 4th County of London Yeomanry, on the left, down the main road to Tilly and Juvigny. 1st Royal Tanks, as the Regiment most behind hand in the build-up, was to stay behind, guarding the bridges over the Seulles. The artillery available was our own two Royal Horse Artillery Regiments, 86th Field Regiment and 64th Medium Regiment, and the infantry had under command a self-propelled Battery of the Norfolk Yeomanry, our Anti-tank Regiment.
The advance began at a quarter to six on the morning of the 10th, and the leading tanks of the 5th Royal Tank Regiment made slow progress down the sunken roads towards Ellon, although one troop, somewhat to its own astonishment, and to the considerable surprise of the enemy, succeeded in entering a German leaguer, where they destroyed a Mark IV. Once again, however, the tanks were up against infiltrating enemy infantry, snipers and a strongly held road-block near Ellon. An attempt to work round farther to the left towards Bernieres Bocage met with no greater success, two Cromwells being lost to a Panther in the Village. The next morning an attempt was again made towards Bernieres Bocage. The reconnaissance troop worked on a mile beyond the village and opposition seemed to have diminished; but enemy reinforcements with a self-propelled gun had come up into the woods, and destroyed one of the leading Honeys of the reconnaissance troop. A platoon of the Rifle Brigade which attempted to clear part of these woods without close tanks support found itself rushed by forty infantry and suffered severe casualties. Clearly what was required was more infantry, and a company of the 2nd Battalion the Essex Regiment came up, cleared the village and the surrounding woods, while the advance continued through Ellon and Folliott until open cornfields were met East of the road Bernieres Bocage to Folliott. Here the going seemed more promising, but Mark Vs were met, concealed in the thick woods East of Bernieres Bocage; a Shermand 17-pounder was hit, and a German tank stalked the tanks of the right-handed troop along a sunken road, destroying two tanks with two rounds. Once again the Essex attacked and secured their objective, and although heavily counter-attacked during the night by a company of infantry, supported by two Mark IV flame-throwing tanks, they held their ground in spite of heavy casualties, and destroyed one tank with a Piat and damaged the other. Thereafter the 5th Royal Tanks, with the 8th Hussars and 2nd Essex, remained in position to cover the right flank.
On the left the 4th County of London Yeomanry were fighting the same sort of battle. Opposition was first met in the woods and houses around the cross-roads at Jerusalem. Three platoons of “A” company the Rifle Brigade then led off to clear the area. A Mark IV was met on the road just to the North of the cross-roads and reported to the tanks, who destroyed it before it could fire. In the area of the houses, a further two tanks were met who engaged the riflemen, but after missing the tanks they moved away, probably nervous of the 5th Royal Tanks in the Ellon area, and the village was occupied. Sniping continued, however, all day, until in the evening the village was cleared by the 1st South Wales Borderers, a task which tanks alone could not undertake. Meanwhile, having secured the right flank towards the 5th Royal Tanks, the remainder of the Regiment attempted a flanking movement towards Ste Bazaire, some two thousand yards to the North-East of Jerusalem. The advance was at first hindered by 8th Armoured Brigade in the area of the river, who knocked out two tanks before recognition was established. In fairness to 8th Armoured Brigade, it had not been possible to send them a Liaison Officer from the Brigade as insufficient scout cars equipped with wireless were available, and the Cromwell tank, seen at intervals through the close country, bore a strong resemblance to the German Mark IV. Moreover, for some time, they had been virtually cut off by infantry and tanks who had infiltrated behind them. But eventually recognition was established and the advance continued. The Rifle Brigade, supported by 5th Royal Horse Artillery, occupied Ste Bazaire and later, closely supported by the tanks, worked down to the woods North of Buceels.
It was clear by now that more infantry would be required to press the attack down the main road through Buceels, and the 2nd Gloucesters, supported by “A” Squadron, entered the village and secured the bridges to the South, knocking out one Mark IV and taking some prisoners. But darkness was coming on, and with no very clear idea as to the enemy’s strength in Tilly and to the North, it was decided to leaguer for the night, and push on over the bridges with the reconnaissance troop the next morning. The night passed without incident, and at first light the advance continued, meeting two Mark Vs and an anti-tank gun on the road some five hundred yards North of Tilly. One Mark V and the anti-tank gun destroyed by the tanks from a flank, and the second Mark V attacked the infantry but was destroyed by a Piat. Further advance, after this promising start, proved impossible. The tanks attempted a flanking movement to the West, only to lose a complete troop to well-sited anti-tank guns, and the infantry were held in their attack from the North by the accurate fire of enemy mortars, guns and small arms. A troop of tanks did, however, get across the main road to the East of the town and shot up some enemy infantry and an anti-tank gun. Meanwhile, the enemy had worked back round the bridges at Buceels and the regimental group, in the absence of further troops to protect their rear, had to withdraw to their positions of the preceding night. The next morning, a further attempt was made to work round Tilly to the West through Verrierres. Enemy infantry were met in the outskirts of the village, reinforced by a tank and an anti-tank gun. The infantry were engaged with hand-grenades from the tanks, and the tank, after withdrawing into the village, returned to knock out one of our own. Finally, a last attempt was made, on the morning of the 12th, to continue towards Tilly and Hottot with two Battalions of 131 Brigade, who had by now arrived, supported by the 1st Royal Tanks, but this met with no more success than the attacks of the previous day.
By midday on the 12th of June, the Division’s attack was virtually at a standstill. The enemy, who turned out to be Panzer Lehr Division, was well able to hold his own along the line Verrieres-Tilly with his infantry, supported by tanks, and had inflicted upon us considerable losses n men and tanks, from the cover of the woods and villages. The Divisional Commander, therefore, was ordered to disengage and to attempt to expand the bridgehead by advancing along the network of secondary roads leading down to Villers Bocage between Balleroy and the valley of the Aure. Slightly to the West of this area, good progress was being made by the American 5th Corps who were reporting little opposition on their advance on Caumont, and there seemed at the time a good chance of turning the let flank of the Panzer Lehr Division by using the armour in an offensive as opposed to a supporting role.
8th Hussars, who up till now had been watching the right flank of the Division, were to lead followed by the 4th county of London Yeomanry, with “A” Company of the 1st Rifle Brigade. The remainder of 22nd Armoured Brigade was made up as follows: a troop of the 4th Field Squadron, Royal Engineers, 5th Royal Horse Artillery, less a Battery, 1/7th Queen’s Royal Regiment, 5th Royal Tanks, two Companies of the Rifle Brigade, and a battery of self-propelled anti-tank guns. Their objective was Villers Bocage and the high ground to the North-East on either side of the main Caen road. 131 Brigade, with the 1st Royal Tanks, were to step up behind the armour as required, and to be ready to do this by the morning of the 13th, by which time their remaining battalion, the 1/6th Queen’s Royal Regiment, was due to arrive.
The route chosen was along steep and narrow country roads through typical Bocage country, through the villages of Trungy, St. Paul du Vernay, Ste Honorine de duchy, La Mirerie, Livry and Briquessard, avoiding the two main roads running south from Bayeux to Villers Bocage, upon which it was felt, enemy would certainly be met. By two o’clock in the afternoon 8th Hussars had got off to a good start, and it was evident that, in spite of the noise and the dust of the tanks, the enemy had been surprised. Livry, twelve miles on from Jerusalem, was the first village to be found held, with an anti-tank gun and some infantry, and it was not until eight o’clock, after “A” Company of the Rifle Brigade had put in a dismounted attack, that the village was captured. It was therefore decided not to push on farther and the column closed up and leaguered for the night. Meanwhile, contact had been made with 1st United States Infantry Division towards Caumont, and a Squadron of the 8th Hussars, protecting the left flank of the Division, had met enemy on the main road from Caumont to Caen.
At half-past five the next morning the advance continued through Briquessard and Amaye-sur-Seulles. Villers Bocage was entered without incident, although the 11th Hussars and the 8th Hussars had both contacted enemy on either side of the centre-line. “A” Squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry, and “A” Company of the 1st Rifle Brigade then pushed on according to plan towards the high ground to the North-East of the town. In order to clear the traffic on the roads behind, the column had to move out comparatively closed up, and it was this that gave a mark VI tank, which suddenly appeared from a side road, its opportunity. Its first shot destroyed one of the Rifle Brigade half-tracks, thus blocking the road, and then at its own convenience, it destroyed the remainder of the half-tracks, some Honey tanks of the Reconnaissance troop, four tanks of the regimental Headquarters and the two OP tanks accompany the squadron. Escape for the tanks, carriers, and half-tracks was impossible, the road was embanked, obscured by flames and smoke from the burning vehicles whose crews could only seek what shelter they could from the machine gun fire, and our own tanks were powerless against the armour of the Tiger, with limitless cover at its disposal. Meanwhile, “A” Squadron in the lead, with the Commanding Officer, were cut off. Their last wireless message, received at half past ten, reported that they were completely surrounded by tanks and infantry, that the position was untenable, and withdrawal impossible, as, in addition to the burning tanks and vehicles, the road was blocked by the same Mark VI which commanded all approaches.
What had happened was simple enough, namely, that the anticipated counter-attack by 2 Panzer Division, much delayed by our own and the United States Air Forces, was at last on its way. Both sides were using Villers Bocage as the most important road-centre South of Bayeux, and the Division, advancing from the North, had met the German armour coming up in the opposite direction. As a result, there followed the brilliant defensive battle of Villers Bocage which, although it obliged us to withdraw some seven miles, cost the enemy casualties quite disproportionate to this gain.
Meanwhile, with the forces available, a hasty defence of Villers Bocage was organised. “B” Squadron of the 4th County of London Yeomanry moved up to block the entrances to the village, and almost immediately found themselves engaged in a tank battle with Mark VIs and IVs. At the same time the 1/7th Queens had been ordered up from the high ground to the East. The anti-tank guns were hastily got into position, and as the leading company made contact with the reserve Squadron, “C”, of the 4th County of London Yeomanry, a Tiger tank suddenly appeared from a side road and proceeded to blow down a corner house in the main square where the troops were assembled. The infantry dispersed into the houses with Piats, while the tanks and the six-pounders of the infantry disposed themselves to block all the entrances to the main street. But superior fire-power told, and more tanks succeeded in getting through, only to be completely bottled up by particularly fine work on the part of a tank-hunting party of the Queens, the six-pounders and a troop of “B” Squadron. The fighting was at point-blank range, and at one time a Mark VI was being engaged through a shop-front by a Cromwell in a side-street. A Company of the Queens then attempted to work through to the railway station on the South-Western outskirts of the town, only to be met by more tanks, of which four Mark VIs were claimed as destroyed by their anti-tank guns. By four o’clock in the afternoon the village was still ours and the enemy had lost six Mark VIs and three Mark IVs. The tank attack having been smashed, a more serious threat, that of infantry infiltration, supported by heavy shell-fire, had developed, and this was a threat with which the slender forces available, the remains of two squadrons of tanks and the scattered men of a single infantry battalion, were unable to deal. Moreover, the enemy infantry were also pushing on towards the Eastern outskirts of the town. By this time the remainder of the Brigade, reinforced by the 1/5th Queens, had taken up a battle position on the high ground to the East of Tracey Bocage, with 131 Brigade, reduced to the 1/6th Queens and the 1st Royal Tanks, protecting the long open left flank to the East of Caumont. It was possible to hold Villers Bocage with its present garrison, and to have reinforced the position with further infantry would have risked the entire force being cut off, as 50th Division had not succeeded in advancing beyond their positions of the previous morning. Accordingly, the decision was taken to withdraw the garrison into the area already held by the rest of the Armoured Brigade. Covered by fire from the 5th Royal Horse Artillery, the infantry withdrew first, followed by the tanks, whose final withdrawal was screened by smoke from the gunners.
The plan was to hold on East of Amaye-sur-Seulles until the advance of 50th Division on our left relieved us, and the bulk of the Division formed a tight “box”, some two thousand yards from East to West, and one thousand five hundred yards from North to South. To the East the 1/7th Queens occupied the line of a sunken track running across a knoll of rolling corn-land, with a narrow valley behind; to the North of the valley were the 1st Rifle Brigade on a wooded feature astride the main road to Villers Bocage, with a company closing he gap between 1/7th and 1/5th Queens; and to the West the 1/5th Queens with the 4th County of London Yeomanry held a reverse slope, amid orchards and farm-buildings. During the day the 5th Royal Tanks occupied battle positions towards Villers Bocage and on the flanks of the infantry, withdrawing at night behind them. In reverse were two Squadrons of the 8th Hussars. The guns of the 5th Royal Horse Artillery were in position roughly in the centre, while from outside magnificent support was given by the 3rd Royal Horse Artillery, 5th Army Group Royal Artillery, consisting of medium and heavy guns, and the 186th United States field Artillery Battalion, whose co-operation during this difficult period will always be remembered. For the most part the “box”, owing to its narrow perimeter, was overlooked from all sides, and cramped with vehicles, while the woods and broken ground of the surrounding country gave ample scope for enemy infantry and tanks to approach and form up unseen.
The evening and night of the 13th passed anxiously but without undue incident, the enemy contenting himself with active patrolling against the Southern flanks of the position, sniping, and a little shelling. On the morning of the 14th, the 5th Royal Tanks once more moved out, and the remainder of the Brigade set about improving their positions and patrolling. Enemy were found on both flanks and across the road leading back to Briquessard. As the day progressed the shelling increased; one or two vehicles inside the box were “brewed up”; and enemy activity in the woods and orchards became considerably more noticeable, giving good targets for the artillery. By eleven o’clock this patrolling materialised into an attack, delivered on the left-hand company of the 1/7th Queens. Once more great execution was done by mortars and artillery, but the enemy succeeded in penetrating the area of one platoon, being driven off in a spirited counter-attack with Sten guns and grenades by the rest of the Company, which successfully discouraged further attempts on this flank. Thereafter he contended himself with accurate and heavy mortar fire on the exposed positions of the 1/7th Queens.
Meanwhile, 131 Brigade, on the morning of the 14th, set off to clear the road from Livry to the “island” as it came to be known. Briquessard was occupied successfully, and near Amaye the tanks of the 1st Royal Tanks made contact with a patrol of the 11th Hussars coming up in the opposite direction. A Squadron of the 8th Hussars had by now worked down to a commanding feature two thousand yards South of the road to Villers Bocage, and Amaye and the area round it were occupied by a Squadron of the 1st Royal Tanks and a company of the 1/6th Queens. The enemy were still both North and South of them, shelling and making constant attempts to probe their defences with infantry through the thick set hedges and orchards bordering the stream running through Amaye, and further West up the river valley from Cahagnes. But, having been repulsed in his attempt to break through the “island” from the direction of Villers Bocage, he now turned his attention to cutting the road behind it, and at four o’clock the tanks and infantry guarding the Southern approaches to Amaye saw infantry approaching to within a few hundred yards of their position through the orchards. These were immediately engaged by Besas when the commander of the left-hand tank spotted the muzzle brake of a tank moving along a hedge behind the infantry. It was fired upon but continued across the line of fire of the remaining tanks of the troop Three hits forced the turret crew to bale out, and the tank was finally destroyed as the driver attempted to move it back to cover. Meanwhile a second tank appeared making for the high ground around Point 198, from which the 8th Hussars had by now been withdrawn. After attempting to find cover behind a bush, it was stopped as it tried to withdraw. The accompanying infantry still persisted, however, and were finally halted by the Besa fire of the tanks.
By now it was clear that nothing was to be gained by remaining in our precarious position with enemy both North and South, and little hope of a speedy advance by 50th Division, who were having a difficult time with Panzer Lehr. At four o’clock in the afternoon the Divisional Commander ordered a withdrawal to the Briquessard area, where we would be in contact with the Americans on our right and would be able to cover, at least by patrolling, the lightly-held enemy salient between our left and the right hand troops of 50th Division. 131 Brigade were to hold the road open while 22nd Armoured Brigade withdrew through them, dropping off the two infantry Battalions on their arrival to take up defensive positions in Briquessard and the wooded ridge running to the North. The 5th Royal Tanks, with a company of the 1/7th Queens carried on the tanks, were to form the rearguard, and the withdrawal was planned to start immediately after last light, at half-past eleven.
However, before the withdrawal could be achieved, the enemy made one last attempt to eliminate the 2island” position entirely, this time from the South. At about half-past six a considerable increase in enemy patrol activity became noticeable, and tanks, mostly Mark VIs, were seen to be forming up. Half an hour later came the attack itself, by two battalions of Panzer Grenadiers supported by tanks. This attack was destroyed mainly by the artillery and mortars, and the few troops that did succeed in penetrating the forward positions of the 1/5th Queens were quickly destroyed by small arms fire and by the guns of two troops of the 4th County of London Yeomanry who came up to help. Owing to the country, it was a close range battle, and for a time “G” Battery, 5th Royal Horse Artillery, were engaging enemy infantry with air-burst and Bren guns at four hundred yards range. This attack cost the enemy some seven to eight hundred casualties, and, owing to the vigorous anti-tank defence of the close perimeter, eight Mark IV tanks were destroyed as they attempted to penetrate the position. By eight o’clock the enemy had recognised defeat, and at half-past midnight our own tired columns, without lights and in clouds of dust, set out. The noise of the tanks was for the most part drowned by artillery fire and the noise of heavy bomber attack, and the 1st royal Tanks, standing to all night inside their tanks waiting for 22nd Armoured Brigade to go through, were undisturbed by the enemy. He did indeed shell the centre line, causing casualties and destroying some vehicles, but as the first light of dawn appeared the 1st Royal Tanks drove out unmolested.
The battle of the “island” was a defensive victory of great importance. As we learnt later, 2 Panzer Division’s intention was to drive a wedge between the British and American armies through Balleroy and the Foret de Cerisy beyond. In fact, to their great surprise they met the division at Villers Bocage, and were forced to fight an offensive battle in close country which undoubtedly favoured anti-tank defence, particularly the six-pounder anti-tank gun with Sabot ammunition which, in view of the short ranges imposed by the country, was probably the most effective anti-tank weapon we possessed. In order to support the Panzer Grenadines, their tanks were forced to close with out anti-tank guns, but even so were unable to prevent the annihilation of the infantry by our concentrated artillery fire. The result was that temporarily, 2 Panzer Division, at a crucial stage in the landings, when the build-up was much delayed by the weather, was severely crippled for a time as an effective offensive force. Our own losses had not been light, but bore no comparison with the enemy’s. Of the prisoners taken quite a few managed to escape back to our own lines, including one Sergeant of the 8th Hussars, who succeeded in strangling on of his guards and brought the other one back with him in an amphibious Volkswagen. For the next three weeks the Division settled down to the uneasy stalemate of Bocage fighting, with its patrolling, sniping, shelling and mortaring, and our infantry, weary though they were, never lost the ascendancy gained at Villers Bocage.
By the middle of June, in spite of the weather, the battle for the bridgehead had been won, and for the Allies the decisive battles were being fought in the Cherbourg Peninsula, and by the 8th Corps to the North-West of Caen. The Division’s part in the fighting was limited to a defensive battle with the Infantry Brigade and 1st Battalion The Rifle Brigade in roughly the area to which we had withdrawn after Villers Bocage.
Originally, as we have seen, the plan was to hold Briquessard cross-roads and the ridge running thence to the North, an area which was “bocage” at its worst. However, on the night of 16th , a Panzer Division made one more probing attack, after a very considerable amount of accurate shelling on the village. Two battalions of a Panzer Grenadier Regiment were involved, supported by a few Tigers. The enemy infantry worked their way through the orchards with considerable skill and forced the leading company of a battalion of the Queens to withdraw slightly, although not before a Tiger had been knocked out at a hundred and fifty yards range by one of the seventeen-pounders of the anti-tank regiment. Meanwhile, the defensive fire of the artillery, mortars and tanks was doing its customary execution, with the result that the second battalion of the Panzer Grenadiers never got started at all, and a rapid counter-attack was able to eject what remained of the enemy infantry in the village and to recapture the seventeen-pounder.
It was then decided that the advantage of holding Briquessard as a jumping-off place was outweighed by the casualties which would result, and the three battalions of Queens were reorganised along the reverse slope of the ridge, with the Rifle Brigade on their left around Le Pont Mulot. The five thousand yards between the left-hand companies of the Rifle Brigade and 50th Division East of St. Paul du Vernay were covered by the 8th Hussars, who did much excellent patrolling under difficult circumstances, owing to the noise and dust of the tanks, which made movement impossible to conceal. Later, a slight advance by 50th Division, which brought 56th Brigade into the area, did much to secure this flank, for, on one occasion, a Panther had suddenly appeared within eight hundred yards of Divisional Headquarters at St Paul du Vernay, and foot patrols were not unknown in that area. There was no real task for the armour, which was withdrawn into reserve around Ste Honorine de Ducy. The enemy’s policy was much the same. The villages to our front, Anctoville, St Germain, Granville and Longraye, were held in some strength, with the tanks well back. The intervening areas were lightly held by a thing screen of machine-gun posts, which frequently changed their positions and were reinforced by night. In accordance with his usual policy he kept up harassing fire with mortars and artillery upon our forward positions, and occasionally on the rear areas as well, and carried out a considerable amount of patrolling.
For our infantry it was a trying period of living in slit trenches in the rain, of suffering a steady drain in casualties from shell and mortar fire, and occasionally from snipers, all the time enclosed in the damp prison of the Bocage, the line of sight bounded by a hedge two hundred yards away. At night there was the constant anxiety of patrolling to pin down an elusive enemy, through close hedges, which were often mined, waiting for the inevitable challenge and the quick bursts of a Spandau. Typical of these encounters was that of a patrol, consisting of eight men, led by an officer, who were moving silently down a hedgerow alongside a track. Suddenly, from the corn to the right, a bolt was heard to open and shut. The patrol leader immediately sprayed the field with his Sten gun and a groan was heard. The patrol withdrew slightly to listen for a few seconds, until a burst of Spandau fire came down the hedge from the direction of the wounded German, followed by two five-centimetre mortar bombs which fell just in front of them. Shortly afterwards, a Verey light went up, followed by artillery fire designed to cordon off the area. Meanwhile, the patrol, who were beating the hedge and cornfield, found the German, and their task being completed, then withdrew. Naturally, not all were as eventful as this. As often as not, patrols went out, found mines or a trip wire, were fired on from a distance with the tracer going wide and high, or found and heard nothing except the enemy’s echelons moving up in the distance; but the Bocage, with a perfect position for a machine gunner every few hundred yards, with its hedges, often only passable through one or two obvious gaps which could be mined, was very difficult country for patrolling.
It was with great relief that we handed over our positions on the 31st of June and the 1st of July to the 2nd United States Armoured Division and withdrew to a much needed rest and refit in the area West and North-West of Jerusalem, where our only enemy, in a country in which indoor billets were unobtainable, was the weather.
The only protection for the most part, was that degree of shelter that each individual could devise with ground-sheets, gas-capes, ingenuity and “scrounging”, for bivouacs and tents were unknown. Towards the end of an otherwise uneventful stay, harassing fire on the area occupied by 131 Brigade caused some casualties.
Copyright © 2000-7 Christopher Attwood Last Updated 09/06/2005 22:31