Ahead, the high ground running from Éterville to Chateau Fontaine and then on to the highest point, Hill 112, was strongly held and the next couple of days saw some of the heaviest fighting we were to experience in the whole campaign with really stiff German resistance. The corn was waist high with poppies growing and it was extremely hard going against a very stubborn enemy. The village of Maltot, which was very strongly held with tanks and mortars, was captured although 130 Brigade of our Division had sustained heavy losses. The 7th Somerset Light Infantry had suffered particularly and their Commanding Officer and his Battery Commander, our Major Gerald Mapp commanding our 171 Battery, were both killed by a shell from a Nebelwerfer.
The 4th Somerset Battalion in our 214 Brigade had been given the task of taking Hill 112, the key to the Normandy Breakout, and fierce fighting had been taking place all day on the slopes. The Battalion had suffered very heavy casualties and lacked the strength to carry the attack to the crest. They had lost no less than twelve officers, including three of their Company Commanders, and, in fact, had fought themselves to a standstill. In the event, by about 3 o’clock in the afternoon, the Divisional Commander, General Thomas, decided that only a completely fresh attack on Hill 112 could save what was developing into a very dangerous situation. Two of the three Battalions in our 214 Brigade had already been committed and there remained only one Battalion available to possibly turn the tide of battle in our favour. This was the 5th DCLI who were snatching what rest they could on the outskirts of Fontaine Etoupefour.
I was ordered to an O Group (Orders Group) where I would meet for the first time our new Commanding Officer, Colonel Blacker, and, of course, our Battery Commander, Tom Brewis. Together with Colonel Dickie James of the DCLI, we would receive the orders for the attack on Hill 112, a vital mission – Rommel himself said that “he who controls Hill 112 controls Normandy”.
By now it was approaching 6 o’clock in the evening. In my Carrier, I was within a couple of hundred yards of the O Group rendezvous when I heard the multi-barrel mortars coming toward us (Moaning Minnies). We parked the Carrier under the lee of a stone wall and I rushed up the road and dived into a slit trench within about 50 yards of the O Group rendezvous only to be showered with dirt and deafened by the terrific bombardment of these mortars. Sadly, when the deafening noise ceased, I realised I was on top of the Brigade Major of 214 Brigade. I could see our Commanding Officer’s scout car burning and it turned out it had received a direct hit and he had been killed instantly. This meant that Tom Brewis, our Battery Commander, was now commanding the 179 Field Regiment and I took over commanding 173 Battery.
It was now early evening on 11th July and it was vital that the attack went in before dark so Brigadier Essame, commanding 214 Brigade, made it clear that reconnaissance right up to the main road running from Evrecy (just short of Hill 112) directly to Éterville must take place immediately, despite enemy fire particularly from snipers. I took the Battery Sergeant Major’s motor cycle and dashed up a track to the Croix de Filandrières (a very prominent stone Calvary). There was dreadful evidence of the previous heavy fighting in the attempt to take Hill 112 and it sticks in my memory the number of infantry 6-pounder Anti-Tank guns destroyed and their crews lying dead around them – a real slaughterhouse.
I stayed no longer than was necessary and, returning to Battalion Headquarters where Colonel James was busy calling his Company Commanders for their final orders, I found my petrol tank on the motor bike punctured by a bullet and the panniers on the rear of the bike riddled with bullet holes but, apart from feelings of shock and excitement, I was unharmed. I busied myself by radio to the Regiment and Alec Greenhill, our Adjutant, preparing the Fire Plan for the DCLI attack and the subsequent defensive fire targets for when we hopefully achieved our objective. The plan was a form of barrage immediately in front of the attacking Infantry. Colonel James issued his final orders in the forward positions of the 4th Somerset Light Infantry at 7pm and I had young Lieutenant Richard Turner (fondly known as young Dickie) and another subaltern, as my two Troop Commanders who would be moving with the leading Infantry Companies.
In the event, the second Troop Commander was to move with Shermani tanks which were to provide support. The tanks were late arriving and we had hardly moved forward when Richard Turner was knocked out: it turned out he had a very severe head injury and was not to be seen again until long after the war. Consequently, I moved forward with Colonel James as the only Gunner support in the jeep known as X2, the Battery Commander’s vehicle. The guns fired a moving barrage only a matter of a few yard ahead of the leading Companies and things went reasonably smoothly, although we were losing quite a few of the Cornwalls.
Just short of the Calvary, my jeep was hit by machine gun fire and Smith, I think his name was, the Battery Commander’s driver, alongside me was badly wounded in both legs. I bailed out into a trench right alongside the jeep already occupied unfortunately by a dead Somerset Infantier. The jeep, although completely immobilised, was not on fire and my radio set mounted forward of the dash on the bonnet was in working order. I was able, therefore, with the remote control, to speak on it. I did manage to give the driver Smith a shot of morphine with the file carried by all officers on our helmets and marked his forehead accordingly. I applied a field dressing to his legs and put him under some bushes, hoping it would not be long before the medical people picked him up. I don’t know what happened to the poor chap.
The Battalion was suffering very heavy casualties and was advancing on a two Company front. The left-hand leading Company suffered very heavy casualties and the Company Commander was killed early on after passing the start line. I remained in close proximity to the Battalion Commander, Colonel James, and, fortunately with our training back in England, he had very good knowledge and aptitude for passing corrections to me for the Artillery support, as I had no Troop Commanders with either of the leading Companies.
Darkness was now falling and the Battalion held a line roughly halfway through the wood at Hill 112 which was our objective. The Battalion’s Anti-Tank 6-pounders had now come up with the following Companies and it was not long before they were required to come into extremely violent action. We were suffering heavy mortar and shell fire and a strong counter-attack came in with tanks and Infantry which fortunately we were able to repel in no small measure thanks to the Artillery fire which I was able to direct. It was for my part in the fighting that night that I was awarded an immediate Military Cross which was presented to me eventually by Field Marshal Viscount Montgomery, then General Montgomery. It was a terrible night and, in my opinion, if anyone ever deserved a Victoria Cross it was Colonel Richard James DCLI CO but nothing came of the recommendation.
Next Page 'Counting the Cost'