Crossing the Seine

 

Crossing the Seine

 

From now until the end of August the Division, as part of 30 Corps, was building up to the crossing of the Seine north of Paris at Vernon. The Americans had advanced south of us due east to the Seine and the German Army in Normandy was in fact trapped and virtually destroyed. As we advanced eastwards the sight of so much destruction, particularly in the Chambois area on the 22nd August, I recall was simply horrifying, with mile after mile of road through the forest from Argentan to Chambois strewn with the wreckage of burnt out tanks, guns, half tracks and wagons, papers and office files littering the fields, horse drawn batteries and their drivers dead amongst the bloated bodies of stinking cattle. It was a horrible sight: a picture of the waste and horror of war which I shall never forget. It was amazing and moving to see the French peasants and even children moving almost unconcerned among the corpses of German troops lining the roads for miles.

I think it was on 22nd August when Battalion Commanders and Battery Commanders were given their orders and the outline plan for the Division to cross at Vernon. The opposition was mainly traffic, rather than enemy, because we were in fact ‘tangled’ with a lot of American transport as they were now moving parallel to the Seine northwards. In fact, some of their patrols were reaching Vernon so that there were the constituents of a real traffic jam muddle.

Our route to Vernon was by way of Argentan, Breteuil and Pacy-sur-Eure, cutting right across the American line of communication. The group with whom I advanced was 214 Brigade which included a troop of Royal Engineers with bridging equipment for a class 40 Bailey Bridge. It helps to appreciate the difficulties of those organising this crossing of the Seine to realise that the Dukwsi (waterproofed floating vehicles) and Storm boats had to be brought up all the way from Arromanches-les-Bains on the beaches at Normandy, the heavy bridging and other technical RE vehicles coming up from far to the rear.

The Seine at Vernon is about 600 to 650 feet wide, flowing with quite a strong current. There were two bridges crossing the river. The stone road bridge had been destroyed in 1940 but some of the pillars still survived and these the Germans had used to construct a metal bridge crossing the river from the centre of Vernon to Vernonnet. The second bridge was the surviving railway bridge which crossed the river 800 yards downstream. At this part of the river there are several islands mid-stream.

The town of Vernon was a charming, well laid out provincial town of about 10,000 inhabitants and was a summer resort for the inhabitants of Paris. It extended about three miles on either side of the road bridge and along the riverside was a road with an avenue of trees and a tow path. Across the river to the east side, wooded slopes studded with neat villas rose rapidly to the plateau above. The suburb of Vernonnet on the opposite side was on a narrow strip of flat ground and, immediately behind it, the ground rose rapidly in an escarpment which completely dominated the river and both banks. The Forêt de Vernonnet extends for five miles from the outskirts of Vernonnet and is intersected by many tracks and bridle paths used by the enemy to move reserves and deploy for action completely unobserved by us.

The advance to Vernon was a shocking business because of the congestion and intermingling and crossing the American lines of communication. The Germans had no idea that the British were approaching and, in pursuit of this objective of keeping them in the dark, our troops advancing on Vernon were instructed to adopt American-style helmets and the advance Battalions hid themselves in gardens and houses and kept out of sight of the enemy on the opposite bank. Meanwhile the roads being so congested, the only Field Regiment of the Divisional Artillery to get close enough to support any action was the 94th, whilst our 179th was held back. When eventually we arrived in Vernon ourselves I, too, was secretive with the Battalion of the DCLI in our reconnaissance.

It was not until the remainder of the Divisional Artillery moved up into range that I had any active part in the operation. Unfortunately, it was in the reconnaissance for forward gun positions that our second in command, Major Sir John Backhouse, was killed. His loss was not only felt technically by the Divisional Artillery but by we members of 179 Field Regiment because he had been such a good friend to all members of the Mess and a first class officer in every respect.

The losses sustained by the Royal Engineers in repairing the bridges and eventually putting a Bailey Bridge across were very heavy. Despite the smoke screen laid by us Gunners, the Germans subjected them to heavy mortar and machine gun fire and airburst artillery almost continuously but the Engineers pressed on and did a magnificent job. Our Battery Commander, Major Tom Brewis, was stuck on an island halfway across the river in his “White” scout car for a period but did eventually make it across. At approximately 4pm on the 26th August, I was able to cross on the broken road bridge which had been repaired by means of planks and ladders and all sorts of improvisation but we did eventually get my Carrier Roger Fox over.

The DCLI were now ordered to advance toward Pressagny-l’Orgueilleux, a small village on the edge of the Forêt de Vernon. It was in this area that I first saw signs of the French Resistance Movement and also witnessed some unpleasant scenes of French women having their heads shaved, allegedly because of their fraternisation with the Germans during the past four years. The Battalion did not enter the village because the civilians might have distracted the lads from their objective of pushing ahead into the forest and on towards the outskirts of the forest at Panilleuse.

The DCLI were on the left flank of the crossing and played an important role in the attack across the river Seine. Eventually we were told to advance from Pressagny-l’Orgueilleux and capture the village of Panilleuse on the eastern edge of the Forêt de Vernon, looking toward the village of Tilly. The enemy opposition was organised in battle-groups consisting of two or three Companies of Infantry supported by three Tiger Tanks. They were advancing toward us from Tilly.

I do vividly recall one of our Companies of the 5th DCLI - I believe it was B Company commanded by Major Parker - was heavily outnumbered and overrun so that, acting on a request from Major Parker, I brought the fire of the Divisional Artillery onto their position, a drastic step but rightly judged by Major Parker as necessary. It proved highly successful: our Divisional Artillery response was immediate and most effective so that the enemy dispersed with very few casualties amongst our own chaps. It was the quick response of the Divisional Artillery to our calls that enabled us to hold on to the position on the left flank. This was absolutely critical because we were covering the rafting site on the Seine essential for the crossing of the 4th Battalion of the 7th Dragoon Guards. They successfully crossed early on the morning of the 28th.

The final attack on Panilleuse by the 5th DCLI was a formal Battalion attack supported by tanks of the Sherwood Rangers. We had to drive the enemy out of farm buildings halfway between the woods and the village. We encountered some fierce opposition which required my bringing down fire at very close proximity to our own Infantry. This is nerve-racking not only for them but also for me because I often found it very difficult to distinguish enemy counter mortar fire from our own bursting shells. However, all went well with comparatively few casualties and, having killed most of the enemy, the remainder fled. The fall of Panilleuse marked the end of the Battle for the crossing of the Seine and we now had a period of comparative rest while the armour could push through across the Seine into Belgium at an unprecedented speed.

The crossing of the Seine at Vernon by 43rd Division is considered by military critics and historians as a model and has been used for instruction.

 

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