I have a not very clear recollection of what happened next but I do know that on the 18th July there was a big tank attack by three of our Armoured Divisions: the Guards Armoured, the 7th and 11th Armoured Divisions. Their aim was to strengthen our hold on the Caen pivot and to enlarge the bridgehead over the river Orne, seizing the high ground on airfield sites to the south-east of Caen. I was briefed by the CRA to report to the 8th Armoured Brigade Commander, Brigadier Prior Palmer, with the object of registering a smoke screen for this attack. I did this in a Sherman tank (with its gun removed) specially fitted with extra radio sets for direct communication back to Brigade Headquarters. Fortunately, I did not take part in the actual attack as our 43rd Division had been transferred to 12th Corps, under the command of General Sir Neil Richie and we were about to take part in an operation going south-west.
This large tank attack, known as Operation Goodwood, proved very costly and by the evening of the 20th July the Armoured Divisions had lost 150 of our tanks, destroyed and in almost every case burnt out. To make matters worse, heavy rain was now falling and turning the battlefield into a sea of mud. The operation, although costly, did have the effect of drawing the maximum amount of enemy armour onto itself and away from the vital west flank where preparations were now in their final stage for the decisive blow in which 43rd Division was to take part.
On the 22nd July, just before going into the rest area, Colonel Geoffrey Pethick came back fully recovered from his wounds and resumed command of the Regiment. It was Colonel Pethick who, on meeting me on my return from a good sleep, informed me of the confirmation of my immediate award of the MC which I found quite overwhelming.
On the morning of 29th July, Colonel Pethick returned from a Divisional Orders Group and told us and his own Order Group down to Troop Commanders that, as a Division, we had now joined 30 Corps which included the 7th Armoured Division, 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division, the 56th Infantry Brigade and the 8th Independent Armoured Brigade and that we were to take part in an assault at first light the next day on a three Divisional front with 43rd Division in the centre. This was the occasion of our “marriage” with the 8th Armoured Brigade commanded by Brigadier Prior Palmer, a partnership which we enjoyed right through to the end of the war in Germany. The “Foxes Mask”, together with the “Wyvern”, would be seen on direction signs right up to and beyond the crossing of the Rhine.
My recollections of what happened in the next couple of months, August and September, are rather hazy but I do remember that we seemed to be in a series of constant actions right through to the capture of Mont Pinçon. This proved to be the turning point in the battle of Normandy, after which it was a race to cross the river Seine. The crossing of the Seine at Vernon was an epic and nasty business which I will attempt to recount later.
On the east of the British front, bounded roughly by the River Orne, were no less than six Panzer and SS Divisions, while at the western end of the British front, opposite Caumont, there was very little German armour. On the 28th July, 30 Corps - of which 43rd Division now formed a part - was concentrated in the area of Caumont with a view to attacking south-eastwards. We now found ourselves having to fight and move forward in real Bocage country in very hot sunshine and the nature of the country was such that detailed observation of the ground ahead was extremely limited. Frequently, it was possible only to see as far as the next hedge and no further, so that there were innumerable small but vicious engagements and mines were a real menace causing great delay and a lot of casualties.
As a Division, we were fortunate in as much that 43rd Division had trained in that part of Kent known as Stonestreet, where thickets and sunken lanes were a conspicuous part of the landscape. I was going forward with the 5th DCLI as OP toward Cahagnes where some fierce hand to hand fighting took place and we moved on to the village of St Pierre du Fresne two miles further on.
By now, on about 1st/2nd August, elements of the 9th and 10th Panzer Divisions that had been fighting around Hill 112 were turning up. From my experience with the DCLI in this fighting, I reckon that the regular officers and men of the Wermacht did their duty bravely and according to their code but they never sank to the level of depravity of the SS Divisions. We did find a large number of Ukranians and other Eastern Europeans fighting in German infantry Battalions whose resistance, when it came to the bitter end, was nowhere near as difficult to overcome as that of the regular Wermacht.
The next couple of days were hectic indeed and I recall at this long distance in time on one occasion being in support of the Reconnaissance Regiment and, of course, moving in the main with the 5th DCLI who had a fierce fight for Jurques before pushing on south on the road to Ondefontaine. It was swelteringly hot and the infantry Battalions were in short sleeve order. I was with Major John Fry still in command of D Company 5th DCLI. We were supported by the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards who were unable to deploy off the road because the country on either side was covered with rocks which made a passage of tanks impossible. The tanks, therefore, went straight up the road and eventually their leading tank was knocked out by a German tank which was waiting for it. Unable to advance further themselves, the tanks successfully supported the infantry and we managed to get on to the objective. Eventually the Panzer tank was knocked out by the PIATs of the Infantry Battalion. It was all very hectic and I was able to call on the whole of the Divisional Artillery on more than one occasion, whose immediate response proved most effective.
I recall mentioning earlier a Sgt Long who was the sniper Sergeant with the DCLI and it was at this point I learned from Major Fry that Long had managed to infiltrate behind the German positions and caused havoc sniping and taking out a number of the enemy who had no idea where the firing was coming from. Long not only did this but he returned through the enemy lines, collected a 38 radio set, went back to the house he had previously occupied and was able to produce a full report over the radio of German positions. For this, Long was decorated with a DCM (Distinguished Conduct Medal).
I cannot recall exactly how it came about but I did follow a Sherman tank which was making its way up the slopes of Mont Pinçon and, after it was knocked out, we managed in my Carrier to eventually find ourselves on the crest of the objective. I’m not sure what date it would be: something like the 6th, 7th or 8th of August. While the days were hot, the evenings proved quite cool and we had quite a fog on this particular occasion on top of Mont Pinçon.
I had been with the forward troops for some weeks now. It was at this juncture that I received a call on the radio to say that Harry Strover was coming up to relieve me at the OP. However, the next I heard was a call from Harry to say the “B…..’s have got me”. It turned out that Harry had been quite severely wounded by machine gun fire and was eventually sent back to England. On the hill that night I sadly found Captain Val Baxter, who had won a M.C. in the desert and John York Long, a Lieutenant with the Regiment who was with Baxter, both killed alongside their armoured scout car: it was all extremely nerve racking. When morning came, I found myself an observation point from where I could see the rooftops of a part of the village of Le Plessis-Grimoult. This was situated at a crossroads south of Mont Pinçon on the main road from La Varinière and was to be the objective for a Battalion attack by the DCLI.
The attack on Le Plessis-Grimoult was to be launched on the evening of the 7th August at about 9.30pm. With the light fading, the Divisional Artillery opened fire to lay a barrage behind which our Infantry could advance. I had been put in the picture on the radio of the planned attack which was to be a noisy one down the road from La Varinière. The tanks were to distract the enemy while the main attack would be made by the DCLI D Company going along the lower slope of Mont Pinçon, advancing south on Le Plessis-Grimoult to take it from the flank.
I had a good view of the whole thing from my position on top of the hill and the capture of Le Plessis-Grimoult is one of the battle honours displayed on the Colours of The Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry. The fire of our 25-pounder Divisional Artillery guns was not very effective against Royal Tiger tanks but we were able to call on the Medium Artillery and by 11pm that night the village had been captured and the last of the Germans had been finally rounded up or shot. There was a counter-attack by tanks and an SP (Self Propelled) gun soon after dawn but that was easily beaten off again, largely by our Divisional Artillery fire.
The Battalion battle had been an outstanding success: 31 of the enemy were dead, 125 prisoners had been taken, we had destroyed our first Royal Tiger tank and had captured two self-propelled Nebelwerfers, one half track armoured scout car, a staff car and a great deal of equipment. All this had been achieved at the cost of one man killed, 5 wounded and one missing. It was a brilliant set piece Battalion attack supported by the tanks of the Independent Brigade and the whole show was a great success for Colonel George Taylor commanding the DCLI. Unfortunately, Major Parker commanding A Company of the DCLI who led the final assault was severely injured in his jaw and shoulder and was absent for some months afterwards from the Battalion.
It was at this time, about 8th August, that General Horrocks, who had been severely wounded, rejoined the 30 Corps and resumed command, it being his old Corps in North Africa. It was he who gave us the news of how the Americans, under the command of General George Patten, were now advancing rapidly from the west through Brittany. At this stage, the battle in Normandy had reached its crisis point and we were about to close what was known as the ‘Gap’ at Fallaise where the British Army, coming down from the north, would trap a complete German Army between the Americans and ourselves.
The Battalion suffered casualties from mines, lightly covered in dust on tracks, and from machine gun fire. The heat was very troublesome, not to mention the occasional thunderstorm which churned up the mud. It must have been about the 17th August when I was supplied with fresh batteries for my wireless set and rations and letters for myself and the three members of the crew of my Carrier. When I eventually opened a letter for me - which I had put in the pocket of my battledress trousers - some three days after receipt, I discovered that I was now the father of a bonny boy in a letter written from Pearl’s mother. Robin had been born on 14thAugust. I was absolutely thrilled.
I think we were in action near Berjou, a ridge of high ground approaching the Orne River, when I had received this letter. Our progress was generally gathering speed and the Divisional Artillery was in constant action. I recall one incident which is amusing but at the time was quite alarming. We had been on the move with the company of the DCLI for most of the day engaged in sporadic fighting and, come evening, I withdrew to Battalion Headquarters, situated in an outbuilding, to snatch a few hours rest. It seemed only a matter of an hour or so when there was quite a commotion caused by the fact that a private soldier, a German Grenadier, hidden in a wooden cask standing in the corner of the room raised the lid and surrendered. He had spent the latter part of the day hidden in this wooden cask in the company of Battalion Headquarters.
Next Page 'Crossing the Seine'