Art Richard Eurich Preparations for D-Da

Part 2, The Allies Return

GOLD

Like some middle child in a large, complex family “Gold” Beach sat right at center of the invasion, where the ruggedness of the landing zone and heavy resistance nearly stalled Allied plans to get inland.

More than seven kilometers (5 miles) wide, and including the coastal towns of Longues-sur Mer, Arromanches, Le Hamel and Rivière. “Gold” was to be taken by the reinforced British 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division, four brigades-strong when the typical was only three, plus the special forces of the 47th Royal Marine Commando and the 268-tank-strong 8th Independent Armored Brigade, one of eight independent armored brigades formed before D-Day to support infantry divisions with armored division-like firepower. Most of the independent armored brigades was nearly on-par with a standard British armored division which could muster 350 tanks, but with none of the motorized infantry that the armored divisions had.

The Northumbrian objectives were to cut the Caen-Bayeux highway, take the small port of Arromanches, link up with the Americans from “Omaha” Beach to the west at the important port town of Port-en-Bessin and join with the Canadians from “Juno” Beach to the east. Easier said than done. With nearly 2,500 beach obstacles strewn across the length of “Gold,” and facing a coastal landscape which alternated between marsh, flooded plains and boulders plus cliff overhangs in the western section, the troops would struggle to advance off the beachhead despite being aided by special support tanks (nicknamed Hobart’s Funnies) from the British 79th Armored Division under Major-General Percy Hobart.

At Longues-sur-Mer was a formidable observation and coastal artillery post which directed a battery of four 155 mm guns, located less than kilometer (half mile) inland from the beach commanded the area. Ideally, the battery should have been subject to an airborne assault as was done at Merville but Allied planners hoped to knock it out with a concerted air strike by the Royal Air Force.

Map of Gold Beach

Meantime, elements from the German 716th and the 352nd Divisions were deployed in houses along the coast, including troops from the problematic 726th Grenadiers Regiment. Most of the 716th Division’s men and hardware had been unloaded east of Arromanches, in what were the primary British landing zones on “Gold.” They were static and immobile and so the Germans had created Kampfgruppe Meyer, a mechanized reserve battlegroup based at nearby town of Bayeux, drilled for a speedy counterattack to an invasion.

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German troops ride aboard a StuG III in Normandy.

Formed out of the 915th Infantry Regiment and the 352nd Division’s Fusilier Battalion, plus the 1352nd Strumgeschutz Company with 10 StuGs and twelve 88mm anti-tanks guns of the 352nd Division’s Panzerjager battalion, this force simmered in repose south of Bayeux.

Graphic or StuGIII tank

Although 25,000 British-Scottish troops were supposed to be landed at “Gold” the initial assault comprised only two of the division’s four brigades. In the eastern sector, on King Beach, Brigadier Knox’s 69th Brigade was scheduled to land with the 6th Green Howards attacking towards the German strongpoint WN35, which was occupied by a company of Russian “volunteers.” Landing on its right was to be the 5th East Yorks Battalion. Meantime, in the Jig Beach sector, Brigadier Alex Stanier’s 231st (Malta) Infantry Brigade was to assault a two-mile front with two battalions: the 1st Hampshires and the 1st Dorsets. The brigade lost its informal “Malta” title after returning to Britain.

As with the rest of 50th Division, the 231st was one of the most battle-hardened formations of the British assault forces which were to land on D-Day. Made up of west countrymen now attached to a Scottish division, the brigade had spent the lean years of 1940 to 1942 on the half-starved and besieged island of Malta in the Mediterranean. It had left the island after the siege was lifted in Match 1943 and trained in the Suez. Soon, it had been bloodied in Operation Husky, the invasion of Sicily on July 10, 1943. Less than two months later, the brigade was conducting its second assault landing – on the Italian mainland, where it landed at Pizzo on September 8. A month after that, Montgomery had let slip to the men that they might be returning to Britain – which triggered euphoria. In Britain, the tanned, muscled troops reunited with their families whom many had not seen since 1939. But the homecoming was now over and the men were going back into the fray.

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The badge of the British 231st Infantry brigade. The white Maltese cross on a red shield alludes to the two years that the brigade was stranded on the besieged island of Malta earlier in the war. IWM

An aerial picture of the Ver-sur area in the Gold beach area on D-Day

Aerial oblique photo of the junction of King Red and King Green beaches during the landing of 50th Infantry Division on D-Day. The Mont Fleury battery (WN 35a) and an anti-tank ditch are visible in front of the village of Ver-sur-Mer. A steady stream of vehicles can be seen travelling along the beach and inland up the road towards Mont Fleury. IWM CL 3947

The scheduled time for the landings were at 7.25 am – one hour later than those of the Americans, owing to the direction of the tide, which traveled from west to east. But high winds that day caused water to pile up sooner than expected and as a result, when the British arrived, the outer beach obstacles were underwater. Allied engineers were prevented from dealing with them, and even when they attempted to clear obstacles closer to the beach, they came under heavy fire. Consequently, when landing crafts arrived, carrying the armor of the British 8th Brigade, twenty of them struck mines.

On the shore, Major Werner Pluskat, commanding a battalion of the 352nd artillery at Port-en-Bessin area was awoken at about 1 am by the sound of anti-aircraft fire. He immediately rang up Major Block, the divisional intelligence officer to ask what was happening. Block told him that the situation was clear but that American paratroopers were landing to the left (on the Cotentin).

Twenty minutes later, a call came in from the regiment informing Pluskat that the invasion was potentially "beginning,” with an order to get troops to their battle stations.

 

Pluskat immediately drove to the regimental forward headquarters, a bunker overlooking the coast, reaching the site at about 2 am. “I remember feeling very excited," he would write later. "We'd been waiting for this thing for so long that we were glad it was coming, so we could get it over with."

The night had been dark and misty and nothing could be seen. Pluskat began to think that it perhaps was not the invasion after all. Hours later, as the gray-tinged slip of dawn came, Pluskat was still at observation. “I thought I could see something along the horizon," he said. "I picked up my artillery binoculars and stepped back with amazement when I saw that the horizon was literally filling with ships of all kinds. I could hardly believe it. It seemed to me impossible that this vast fleet could have gathered without anyone knowing. I passed the binoculars to the man alongside me and said, 'Take a look'."

 

He replied: ‘My God, it's the invasion’.” Pluskat called up Major Block to tell him the news: “There must be ten thousand ships out there. It is unbelievable, fantastic-”

 

“Look, Pluskat, are you really sure?” Block asked. “The Americans and the British together don't have that many ships.”

“For Christ's sake, come and look for yourself,” Pluskat shouted, becoming agitated. When he sensed continued disbelief in Block’s tone, he added: “To hell with you” and threw down the receiver.

Abruptly, a roar of engines. A masse of planes were coming in from the sea, black eggs dropping from their underbellies - bombs. The earth shook under the force of the explosions. For 40 minutes the bombardment went on as Pluskat and his men cowered in their bunker. When the quiet descended, the naval force in the bay stirred.

 

“We watched, absolutely petrified, as the armada steadily and relentlessly approached," Pluskat wrote later. "It was an unforgettable sight; I don't think I had ever seen anything so well organized and disciplined. At about five o’clock in the morning, the fleet began maneuvering in front of us and I realized that the battleships were getting ready to fire. I telephoned Bock and asked permission to fire. He replied, ‘No, no. We're too short of ammunition. No gun must fire until troops are nearing the beaches’.”

Werner Pluskat and General Dittmar in 1945

Major Werner Pluskat (third from left, wearing a peaked cap) on 27 April 1945 during his surrender to US forces. At the time, he was serving as aide-de-camp to the German army radio commentator, General Kurt Dittmar (third from right, wearing peaked cap), who is speaking with a French correspondent. The young German soldier standing second from left is Dittmar's 16-year-old son, Berend. Getty

The Allied navy unleashed heavy fire. The navy paid particular attention to the battery at Longues-sur-Mer.

 

The first to fire at 5.30 was the British cruiser HMS Ajax, which was stationary six miles offshore. The heavy bombardment triggered return fire from the German guns. Initially the battery focused on the American destroyer USS Emmons at 5.37 am but then it began to target the battleships USS Arkansas, which was lying across in the “Omaha” sector of the seascape, 10 miles away. (Graphic of naval bombardment)

In the meantime, Captain Weld of Ajax, ordered steady fire against the battery, and was soon joined by the Free French cruiser Georges Leygues. After being bracketed or hit by twenty 12” shells and one hundred 5-inch shells, the battery fell silent. At 5.57 am it resumed fire, this timing aiming at the cargo ship, HMS Bulolo. The target was apt. Bulolo was Task Force G’s flagship and carried the headquarters of the 50th Division.

Minutes later, shortly after 6 am, a German Focke-Wulf Fw190 Jabo, raced in out of the morning gloom and lobbed a 250lb phosphorous bomb onto the Bulolo. The detonation holed the operations room and destroyed records.

 

Realizing the destruction of the ship would badly hinder the amphibious assault and coordination, Allied commanders ordered Bulolo to weigh anchor and moved out of range. The Longues battery began firing again. Furious return firing erupted from Ajax, joined by the Free French cruiser Montcalm. Once again, the battery fell silent once again at 6.20 am, but this would prove temporary.

Back in '94 during the 50th anniversary of the D-Day, a Time Magazine piece recollected the Ajax's duel with Longues battery. That pithy description about Ajax's "sharpshooting" was enough to engender a lifelong fascination with this vessel. 

Landing table for British forces at Gold Beach

Meantime, Pluskat was living his own nightmare. Cowering under the force of the bombardment at Port-en-Besin, he remembered that “the shells screamed like a thousand express trains and all seemed to be converging on our position. One of the first shells hit the base of our bunker and literally shook it. I was thrown to the ground and my binoculars were smashed. There was dust, powder, dirt and splinters of concrete all over the place and, although many of the men were shouting, no one seemed to be hurt. The firing continued, shell after shell pounding the bunker. It was unbelievable to me. I was completely dazed and unable to speak,” he added.

 

It was about 7 am. Twenty-five minutes later, the troops of the 69th Brigade hit the beach at “King,” preceded by Sherman DD tanks from the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards which were deposited ashore by their LCTs after the tank officers decided the sea was too rough to support a seaborne launch. Nevertheless, some tanks were launched at sea and five sank. The arrival of the survivors congested the beach in the “King” sector, especially as the special “funnies” of the C Squadron, Westminster Dragoons and the 6th Assault Regiment (Royal Engineers) arrived shortly after.

Then, things started to heat up. At La Riviere, an 88mm gun sited at WN33 began to pick off tanks as machinegun and rifle fire racked the beach. Scores of East Yorks began to die. Two Sherman Flail tanks were hit. Troops scattered helter-skelter. A third Sherman Flail roared up to the H667 casemate where the firing had come from pumped three shells through the casemate’s embrasure. The 88m gun and its crew went up in flames.

Naval artillery fire began to pummel the ground behind WN33, which appeared to unravel German resolve. This was all the respite that the East Yorks required. They charged the strongpoint. Forty-five Germans came out with hands up. It was 8.30 am. After having lost 90 men and killed or wounded, the East Yorks consolidated their first prize on France – WN33.

Destroyed Sherman Flail tank on Gold beach

One of the Sherman Crab flail tanks of the Westminster Dragoons, 79th Armored Division knocked out by an anti-tank gun. IWM B5141

The 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards at Gold beach

The Sherman tanks and other vehicles of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards wait at their first pre-arranged concentration area after having pushed off the coastline. The troops are de-waterproof their equipment for the push inland. Major W H J Sale, MC, 3rd/4th County of London Yeomanry

But already, like some unstoppable force, the battalion was on the move. One company had pushed on to reach WN34, a strongpoint set up around the Mont Fleury lighthouse. It winkled out the Germans here, taking 30 prisoners.

Meantime, on the western shoulder, Lt-Colonel Robin Hastings’ 6th Green Howards were landing at Le Hable de Heurtot only to be hit with fire from WN35 with its Russians. When “B” Squadron the 4th/7th Dragoons broke out onto the beachhead, the Russians lost their stomach for fight.

As Churchill AVRE tanks finished mopping up the last of Axis resistance at WN35, Major Lofthouse’s “D” Company swept along the only road spanning the marshes, skirted an anti-tank which yawned like a chasm on their right and mounted a rising slope to make for the German heavy naval artillery position at Mount Fleury which bristled with guns.

Gold Beach Mont Fleury air recon photo

British troops land in the "King" sector on D-Day. At the left side near the coast is the village of La Reviere. In the middle part of the image is Ver-sur-Mer. In between that and the tank traps is the scorched patch of ground which is the Mont Fleury battery, with the landscape showing signs of battle damage. Original annotations by USAAF photo recon interpreters. US National Archives

Among the invaders was the Company Sergeant Major Stan Hollis, 31, a big man, towering 6’2,” rugged and with a violent temper if provoked. He was also battle-hardened. As a motorcycle dispatch ride in 1940 he had come across dozens of French civilians murdered by the Germans near Dunkirk. That had filled him with a loathing of the Germans. By 1942, he was fighting in North Africa. He had been captured then but had escaped and in 1943 and subsequently saw combat on Sicily until he was wounded at the Battle for Primasole Bridge. He was reputed to have already killed over a hundred Germans and Italians by D-Day. For his men, this was evidence of his indestructibly, but for Hollis it was evidence of his own fallibility.

In his later years, his children would remember him locking himself in his room, crying to himself that he had blood on his hands. Not that Hollis ever considered himself a proper soldier.

He once joked that he was possibly the worst shot in the army. “If I fell down, I couldn’t hit the floor,” he would say, and to this, he would add that he had never learned how to properly throw a grenade: “I threw it like a cricket ball; I could never do it the proper Army way.”

 

Soon after landing, Hollis clumsiness became apparent when he threw a grenade at Germans in a trench but made the rookie mistake of not pulling the pin.

British war hero Stan Hollis

An introspective Stan Hollis in 1945, after he had received the Victoria Cross for heroics in Normandy.

In command of three machinegun and three mortar teams, Hollis was tasked to cover the advance of "D" company towards the battery. He and his men watched as the company moved towards its immediate objective - a house with a distinctive round driveway that overlooked the beach. No sooner had the leading platoons passed the house when they were raked by fire from a machinegun in a pillbox set against the garden wall. Seeing the troops toppling into a bloody heap, Hollis charged over 30 yards of open ground as tracers flashed past. He stuck his Sten into the slit of the pillbox and opened fire, emptying the 30-round magazine.

Then climbing the pillbox, he dropped a grenade inside. After the bang and entered the pillbox and took the survivors captive. As he stepped back out, he noticed a slit trench leading to a second pillbox in the garden. Moving down it alone, he took the Germans in the second pillbox by surprise. His men were astounded to see him leading out over 25 Germans.

On “Jig” Beach, meantime, the 231st Brigade began landing at 7.25 am. Ten minutes before, four LCT(R) short for: Landing Craft Tank (Rocket) had positioned themselves 3,500 yards from the beachfront and had unleashed nearly 4,000 twenty-nine pound high-explosive rockets. With them were several LCT (H) (for Hedgerow), which fired salvors of 380 twenty-four or 60-lb high explosive spigot bombs to saturate the German defenses before the “Funnies” of Hobart’s 79th Division landed at H-Hour.

The infantry came ashore shoulder-to-shoulder in the Jig Green-Red sector. Unfortunately, this was the wrong landing site. Landing officers had mistaken a felled tree trunk for a log designated as a landmark during pre-invasion briefings.

 

The 1st Hampshires were actually supposed to have landed at further west at “Item Red” across from Le Hamel and Asnelles while the 1st Dorsets were to have landed across from the WN36 strongpoint at a tiny hamlet called Les Roquettes. On top of being slightly off-target, the infantry found their Sherman DD tank support which were to have preceded them to shore was delayed because of the rough gray sea.

The Sherwood Rangers Yeomanry, 60-Shermans-strong, plus 11 light tanks and 100 supply vehicles was a mighty force. Its swimming Shermans of “B” Squadron were supposed to have swum in to land in the “Item” sector with the 1st Hampshires, while “C” Squadron was assigned to support the Dorsets.

However, aghast at the conditions, the tankers argued that to launch from out to sea would risk not only exposing the tanks to a higher chance of being swamped by waves, but also being ramming by other vessels.

Tank Funnies-01.jpg

Some of the special "funny" tanks employed by the British 79th Armored Division during D-Day. These innovations were the brainchild of the divisional commander Maj-General Percy Hobart (pictured) and his men.

 

The tanks would prove instrumental in allowing Anglo-Canadian forces to push off the beachfront. Apart from a Sherman dozer, US forces had nothing similar, and heavy American losses at "Omaha" beach are attributed to this deficiency.

Hobart 2.jpg

A debate raged between Sherwood officers and the naval men commanding the LCTs. Eventually, it was decided to launch the tanks closer to shore. Among the British tankers trying to make it to land was Lt Stuart Hills, 20, a green officer in “C” Company. The original plan was to launch the tanks from 7,000 meters (4 miles) out. Traversing from that range to the beach would require at least an hour of travel.

When the ramps of Lt Hill’s LCT was lowered, he could see a narrow stretch of beach and a house behind it. It recognized it instantly from air reconnaissance photos and dioramas of the landing zone that he and the other men of the regiment had been shown before D-Day. Someone told him that the LCT’s bows had been damaged in a collision and that the vessel was trying to beach itself at shore to land the tanks.

Over the air, Lt Hill could hear radio chatter from another channel interfering with attempts by Major Stephen Mitchell MC, the commander of “C” Squadron to relay instructions to his troopers. Hill later recalled that “radio reception was extremely poor because of continual interference from other stations," which was hardly surprising considering the huge number of frequencies being used on D-Day.

Mitchell’s exasperated voice could soon be heard over the airwaves: “Get off the mucking air, I am trying to fight a battle.”

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Lt Stuart Hills of the Sherwood Rangers.

German shells were spouting into the water all around the LCT but one crashed into the just ahead of the vessel, followed by another which hit the side of the ramp and another which smashed into the starboard beam in quick series of shocking explosions. Several men were hit. Aghast, Lt Hill watched as two Churchill AVRE tanks on the beach erupted into flames after they were hit by German anti-tank guns. No one emerged by the wreckage of smashed steel and flames. Then, the order came: the tanks were launch before the beach was reached. Moments later, the Sherwood tanks were slipping into the water, engaging their propellers the moment they did so.

Water began seeping in from all over the place into Hill’s Sherman. His driver, Geoff Storey said water was already knee deep in the diver’s compartment. Activating the bilge pump helped matters some but not so much that Hill could think they would not sink. Soon, it was clear that the tank would never reach the shore. Clearly the shelling had opened a hole somewhere in the bottom of the tank. Hill and his crew bailed out into a bright yellow dingy which stood out appallingly in the gray drab hues of naval and army steel and the sea.

Hill would later write that “in all five tanks of C Squadron and three of B Squadron sank.” Among those killed was Lt. Monty Horley, commanding a troop in “B” Squadron, was killed just after coming ashore by after a shell or machinegun fire ignited a spare fuel can and set the canvas screen around the Sherman on fire. Some of the crew escaped but Morley was hit by a burst of gunfire as he tried to bail out. A sniper had also wounded the regimental commander, Lt-Colonel John Anderson who was evacuated to England. Command of the regiment fell to Major Michael “Sweeny Todd” Laycock, scion of a distinguished military family.

Back at sea, about a mile away, “A” Squadron under Major Stanley Christopher could hear the maelstrom of combat emanating from the shore and the cries and exultations of their comrades coming over the radio. Among them was Captain Keith Douglas, second-in-command of the squadron and a distinguished poet on his own right.

 

Douglas made for an unconventional soldier. As Desmond Graham, a lecturer in English at Newcastle University who edited and wrote the introduction to Douglas’ seminal book Alamein to Zem Zem, later said: Douglas found in the army “an enclosed, anachronistic and extraordinary social and military milieu,” while it, in turn, found him “insufferably knowledgeable and recklessly outspoken.”

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The poet Keith Douglas in North Africa in 1942.

Douglas was no wallflower. He had seen battle in North Africa and in Italy. The experience of war had hardened him but it had not made him a follower of military protocol. As Christopherson would say: “When he joined the Regiment he appeared to have a grudge against the world in general and particularly those of his fellow Yeomanry officers who had been with the Regiment before the war and consisted of wealthy landed gentry … he was a complete individualist, intolerant of military convention and discipline, which made life for him and his superior officers difficult … I recall many occasions at various conferences and order groups having to upbraid him for drawing on his map instead of paying attention.”

In action, however, Christopherson could admit Douglas had courage. Normandy, however, was a different animal than the flats valleys, stunted hills, dunes and savannahs of the Mediterranean that the men had known.

“A” Squadron, which had conventional Shermans, was to land on shore 30 minutes after H-Hour. By that time, however, a heavy killing was already happening ashore. As far as the infantry was concerned, most the tanks had not arrived. Only two of the 16 LCTs tacked with bringing in Centaur tanks had arrived on time.

When the “A” and “B” Companies of Lt-Col. H B Ray’s 1st Dorsets landed at 7.30 am near Les Roquettes, they began to take heavy fire from a captured Polish 77mm gun deployed in the H612 casemate of the WN37 strongpoint at Le Hamel. In Hill’s “C” Squadron, two Sherman DD tanks took hits and erupted into flames. The “funnies” of the Westminster Dragoons were also taking a beating. One Sherman "Crab" Flail tank hit mines and brewed up, blocking the beach exit, preventing an AVRE which was coming behind from getting off the beach. Nearby, another Flail tank became immobilized in the marsh. Seconds later, a German anti-tank round from the same Polish gun punched into an AVRE behind the "Crab" and blew it up.

On their right, the 1st Hampshires had come ashore at 7.35 am. No sooner had “A” and “B” companies landed when they were also pinned down by heavy fire from WN37. The battalion commander, Lt-Colonel H D Nelson-Smith MC was wounded – twice – and out of the fight. A team of artillery spotters intended to down heavy naval fire on beach strongpoints were also hit, their radio riddled to pieces.

Aerial recon photo of Jig Sector during D-Day

An American F-5 reconnaissance aircraft photographs “Jig” sector with the town of Meuvaines at the center-right at about 11.30 am on D-Day. The Aerial Reconnaissance Archive in Edinburgh

Among the landing troops was a radio operator, Private Hooley of “A” Company who recalled that the Germans were laying it on thick even before his LCA beached itself on shore. There were no cries of anguish as men were hit and died, but Hooley could see scores of men toppling. As Hooley and other men ran for cover, a blast erupted nearby. Hooley’s radio went dead. “A sweet rancid smell, never forgotten, was everywhere; it was the smell of burned explosive, torn flesh and ruptured earth,” he said.

Up near the landward side of the beach, he could see a Flail tank knocked out behind which a group of men from the headquarters platoon were sheltering from German artillery fire. A shell landed among them and they vanished in a blast of fire and smoke out of which came cartwheeling a ragged and “shrieking” body of a stretcher bearer with a red cross on his arm. By when 20-minutes later, when “C” and “D” Companies of the second wave landed, they found in beach in chaos. Smoke from two Flail tanks which had been destroyed by the 75mm cannon spewed black smoke into the air.

Stanier Bart was at a loss at what to do, although he was not lost for words later: “The [pre-assault] airstrike not only missed le Hamel but most important the pillbox at the east end which caused all the trouble ... owing to insufficient

liaison between ground and air, the RAF had not realized the importance of the target… [the landing site] was completely defiladed from the sea by massive concrete walls and it had a magnificent enfilade shoot along the beach. Its low profile and the way it blended into the background meant that it was not bombarded from the sea.”

By when “C” Company of the Dorsets landed in the second wave, the defensive strongpoint at WN36 was also spouting fire at the troops. A German soldier, Grenadier Hubbne, was at the defensive post firing an undamaged machinegun with his sergeant when he heard a loud noise behind him. “[We] realized the enemy tanks and infantry were in our rear. Suddenly there was a lot more noise and the whole bunker collapsed. A tank had come up and fired a heavy charge that really destroyed everything.”

A 40lb Spigot fired by an AVRE had smashed into the fortification. As the smoke and the dust subsided, the British scoured the smashed bunker for survivors. They found Hubbne and a few others. By afternoon, the prisoners were on their way in a ship to a POW camp in Britain.

While “B” Company set up a defensive ring around the beachhead in Allied control, “A” and “D” Companies set off inland, reaching Meuvaines by 9.30 am. They then turned west and pushed on by scattered German units holding area at Petit-Fontaine and Puits Herode.

Art 231 Brigade Commanders.jpg

Battalion commanders of the 231 (Malta) Brigade as painted by the war artist Antony Gross in 1944. From left: Lt-Colonel H D Nelson-Smith, MC, 1st Hampshires; Lt-Colonel A W Valentine, DSO, OBE, 2 Devonshires and Lt-Colonel W H B Ray, DSO, 1st Dorsets. IWM

Back near WN37, four Sherman DDs of “B” Squadron, Sherwood Rangers had been destroyed and a Flail tank under the command of a Sergeant Lindsay had been skewered after it had cleared a mine-free passage through the dunes. With Lt-Colonel Nelson-Smith out of action, Major Martin took command of the Hampshires. Minutes later, he was wounded and incapacitated. A third officer, Major Warren, took charge, only to be killed by a sniper two hours later. At 8.15 am, the 231st Brigade’s third battalion, Lt-Col. “Cosmo” Nevill’s 2nd Devons began landing on the beach, but this appeared to make no difference to the staunch German defenders.

As a tank-less Lt Hill and his crew watched from their dingy, a mass of British infantry were pinned down behind a sea wall by enemy fire coming from a large building. A tank-landing craft with 25-pounder guns opened up on the building from close range, as did an AVRE and two Shermans. The building ceased firing. Moments later, Hill and his crew were spotted by an LCG (landing craft fitted with guns) and picked up. Their participation in D-Day was over.

 

Nearby, 90 minutes after H-Hour, Lt-Colonel Phillips 47th Royal Marine Commando Battalion had landed east of the 231st Brigade sector, minus the troops aboard four out of 14 LCAs. These had sunk after being shelled or having struck mines. By when the Marines gathered on the beach at Les Roquettes, four officer and 68 men were missing – a grievous blow to the battalion which only 445 men in total. Worse, Phillips himself was missing and some of the commandos would not land until 1.50 pm. With whatever stalwarts he could find on the beach, the battalion second-in-command, Major Donnell, took charge, leading the commandos towards the church at Asnelles. Their objective was Port-en-Bessin, but odds were against the depleted force reaching its objective.

Gold Beach 47 Royal Marines.jpg

Commandos of the 47th Royal Marines run ashore  near La Rivière-Saint-Sauveur on D-Day. IWM

Back in “King” sector, the 50th Division’s two other brigades began landing and by 11 am, the entire division was on dry land. Several lanes were cleared off from the beachhead allowing the infantry and armor to begin pushing off the coastline. Brigadier Senior’s 151st Brigade with the 90th Field Artillery Regiment set off in two groups for their objective of the day, the N13 highway. To the east, the 6th Durham Light Infantry and squadron of Shermans from the 4th/7th Dragoons pressed towards Crepon and Villiers-le-Sec. To the west, the 9th Durhan Light Infantry, backed by the 8th Durhams marched towards the Crepon-Bayeux road. On the horizon was the village of Sommervieu beyond which the spires of Bayeux cathedral could be seen.

Meantime, to the west, Brigadier Pepper’s 56th Brigade rushed into the landscape northwest of Bayeux. Among them were the 2nd South Wales Borderers who came upon one of their objectives: a VHF station at Pouligny which they found the Germans had set ablaze. Moving on past the conflagration, they would take the bridge to Vaux-sur-Aure near Bayeux at 11.50 pm.

 

In the center, Green Howards from the “A” and “D” Companies were striking south, followed by reinforcements in the form of “B” and “C” Companies who were starting to come ashore at around 11 am.

“B” Company moving to mop up the small concrete bunkers sprinkled along the length of the Meauvaines Ridge. Meantime, “C” Company captured Hill 52, to the west of Ver-sur-Mer and moved pushed on to the southwest. Some of the troops stumbled onto a German headquarters outside Crepon with an artillery battery made up of four Czech 10cm guns. As the men prepared to attack both positions at about 11 am, orders came from Lt-Col. Hastings to keep moving. The colonel wanted to reach the N13 highway as soon as possible.

So, what would have been a heavy attack on the German headquarters and battery was instead reduced to a single company attack by Major Lofthouse’s “D” Company, which was appalled and therefore relieved somewhat when Lofthouse told his men: “Just do the minimum necessary to open the road for is to use.”

Hollis, his face stained red by blood from a head wound (a sniper’s bullet had creased his forehead earlier that morning), moved forward to secure a farm owned by the Lahaye family on the southwestern edge, comprising German defenses around the headquarters and battery. Since his morning-actions, he had been elevated to acting commander of 16 Platoon after its officer had been killed. As he and his men went through the gate of the farm, shown the way by a member of the farming family, he spotted a German field gun hidden behind a hedge of rhubarbs. Already eight British troops lay dead on the field after attempting to knock out the gun.

Arming himself with a PIAT and accompanied by two Bren gunners, he crawled towards the gun. When he had closed to within 100 yards of the gun, he fired the PIAT. To his horror, the Spigot bomb missed. Abruptly seven or eight gray-clad figures erupted into activity all around the gun. As the British watched, the gun turned in their direction and amid a blast from the muzzle, a shell raced over their heads. Hollis sprinted for the cover of a nearby barn, shouting at the two Bren gunners with him to pull back.

The men lay frozen, either oblivious of the command or were too frightened to run.

Aghast, Hollis seized another Bren and advanced on the artillery gun, firing from the hip to distract the gunners. When the Germans turned the gun on him, the two Bren gunners fled for cover. Another shell blasted from the muzzle of the gun, and roared by. When Hollis D-Day actions were later assessed, he was recommended for an immediate Victoria Cross, the highest British medal for valor. His Victoria Cross was gazetted on 15 August. While the Americans handed out four Medals of Honors for actions on D-Day, for the Anglo-Canadians, Hollis’ VC was the only one on D-Day.

British troops advance on Crepon on D-Day

British troops move forward on a road between Ver-sur-Mer and Crepon on D-Day. IWM B 5277

By now, reinforcements in the form of the 7th Green Howards had landed on the beachhead at 8.20. As battalion quickly passed through Ver-sur-Mer, they reached a German artillery battery located at Mare Fontaine. Here, the Germans were  too dazed and demoralized by the Allied aerial bombardment to fight.

In the problematic “Jig” and “Item” sectors, it was 1.45 pm by when the invaders resumed their push to get off the beach. “B” Company, 1st Hampshire tried to bypass Asnelles only to trigger a fierce firefight. As the fracas raged, “D” Company managed to slip through, overunning WN38 at Saint-Come-de-Fresnes before smashing on towards the WN42 radar station situated on the coast. The 2nd Devonshires pushed on towards Ryes on the Bayeux road, with “C” Company striking west towards La Rosiere. The advance was neither stellar nor stalled.

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