Part 2, The Allies Return

A RAMPAGING DAY

Back on the Cotentin, at the La Fiere bridgehead, Major Frederick Kellam, the commander of the 1st Battalion, 505th PIR, had fortified the bridgehead with mines and additional troops. A disabled German truck was pushed onto the bridge to become a roadblock. Meantime, a 57mm anti-tank gun which had come in on the second wave of gliders was deployed at the manor house at 8.30 that morning. This had been followed by three more guns, plus troops.

At 4 pm, ante began to rise. Heavy firing was heard to the west and Dolan saw a patrol from the 508th PIR which had gone out earlier running back across the marshland. It was clear they were under pursuit. Three German tanks hove into view from around the causeway from the direction of Cauquigny. A small American force which had been deployed at the hamlet had been routed. But these were not the big beefy German tanks that Allied troops had come to begrudgingly respect. These were some French lightweights captured in 1940.

Then, the Americans at La Fiere saw something which made their stomach turn. The Germans were using a group of 12 to 15 captured American paratroopers as human shields. The tank commander was ordering the troopers to pick up the mines that Kellam had laid and throw them into the fields, explained Sgt. Elmo Bell of C Company, 505th PIR.

Major Frederick Kellam

Half an hour later, as suspense reaching tipping point, the German force drew closer to the bridge. The Americans, their hearts in their throats, held fire, unwilling to hit the captive paratroopers. Just then, one of the German tanks lobbed a shell at the manor. Like a hornet’s nest roused, the American defenders hurled heavy fire at the Germans. The captured paratroopers threw themselves onto the ground.

“When the lead tank was about forty or fifty yards from the bridge, the two Company A bazooka teams got up just like clockwork to the edge of the road. They were under the heaviest small-arms fire from the other side of the causeway, and from the cannon and machine-gun fire from the tanks,” Lt. Dolan said.

In one of the bazooka teams, Privates Lenold Peterson and his loader Marcus Heim, took aim at the lead tank. Before they could fire, an American machine gun fired a burst and killed the tank commander who was standing up in the turret. Peterson then launched his rocket at the same time one of the 57mm guns fired. The bazooka round appeared to miss but the gun round blew the track off the tank, bringing it to a halt. The turret swung around, took aim at the 57mm gun and blasted it, killing the crew. A furious fusillade erupted from the German infantry following the tanks. Mortar rounds began to tear into the hellscape.

As the gunners died, paratroopers rushed to take their place. According to one paratrooper, seven airborne men died while manning the guns.

Private Heim saw the first crippled tank start to turn sideway while blazing away. A round hit a cement telephone phone near the bazooka team. Both men scrambled to avoid being pummeled. From a new position, Peterson and Heim began to pump shell after shell into the tank until it ceased moving. Another paratrooper ran over and dropped a grenade into the open turret hatch. The tank ceased firing.

The remaining 57mm guns began to blast the remaining two tanks. The second tank attempted to push the first tank out of the way but failed. The American guns hit this second tank repeatedly until it blew up in flames. Peterson and Heim then knocked out the third tank.

Dolan was full of praise for his bazooka men. “To this day, I’ll never be able to explain why all…of them were not killed. They fired and reloaded with the precision of well-oiled machinery. … I don’t think that either crew wasted a shot,” he said. The German attack had failed, but soon intense mortar fire began to saturate the area.

Back on “Utah Beach,” the 8th Infantry was pushing off the coastline. Within an hour of landing, Sergeant Salinger and other in his Intelligence unit were moving along a causeway west where they would eventually link up with Salinger’s home regiment, the 12th Infantry, which was to land five hours later.

Under Colonel Russell Reeder, the 12th found itself facing a confounding defensive position they had ill-trained for – flooded marshland which extended up to 2 miles long. The troops found they had to wade through the waist-high water while under sporadic German fire. In spots, the ground dropped abruptly, submerging soldiers who for decades after would fear open shallow water. By the end of the day, despite these travails, the 12th Infantry would reach village of Beuzeville-au-Plain, five miles inland from the beach. It would be the deepest penetration made by any American unit on D-Day. They dug-in and waited for orders.

“Sword Beach” was a mess by mid-morning. Gathering an orchard outside Hermanville that mid-morning, the commander of I Corps, Lt-General John Crocker told Maj-General Tom Rennie of the 3rd Divisions that the offensive was going badly. For one, the 8th Brigade units, the South Lancs and the Royal Suffolks, who had to clear two obstacles on the way to Caen: Periers ridge and a sprawling strongpoint codenamed “Hillman,” had failed to complete their objectives.

Major Hans von Luck reads a map as one of his panzergrenadiers gestures towards a landmark in Normandy.

Worse, on the other side of the Orne, increasingly frustrated messages were emanating from the 6th Airborne Division, indicating heavy attacks from a German battlegroup of the 21st Panzer Division. This battlegroup,  Kampfgruppe Luck, comprised the 125th Panzer Grenadier Regiment, under a professional soldier, Major Hans von Luck.

All that previous night, von Luck and his men had seethed in anger, having waited hours for order to attack the paratroopers, which never came until after dawn. Finally, orders came from General Erich Marcks of 84 Corps who ordered the 21st Panzer Division into action. While the Germans had prepared to move another order had come from the Seventh Army: "The bulk of the 21st Panzer Division will attack the enemy forces that have landed west of the Orne; only elements of von Luck's combat group will attack the bridgehead east of the Orne."

And so von Luck's regiment, together with the divisional Panzer Reconnaissance Battalion 21 and a platoon of 88mm antitank guns had attacked the paratroopers. By 5 pm, he would be joined by a force of tanks from the 4th Company of the 22nd Panzer Regiment. Von Luck's orders were succinct: "crush the 6th Airborne's bridgehead, recapture the two Orne bridges at Benouville and establish contact with the coastal units."

Some British forces landing at "Sword" began to veer to the right to support the beleaguered paratroopers but for the bulk of the British 3rd Division, the focus was Caen.

The main body of the division began arriving on the beachhead by late morning. The firse were the troops of Brigadier K P Smith’s 185th Infantry Brigade which clustered north of Hermanville. Then, between 10 am and 11 am, Brigadier J C Cunningham’s 9th Infantry Brigade arrived, plus the Sherman tanks of the 1st East Riding Yeomanry. Smith’s orders were to race into Caen as soon as the first wave of troops of the 8th Brigade had cleared Periers and Hillman. But the 8th Brigade was stuck and so was the 185th.

Cunningham’s orders were advance along the right flank of the 185th and link up with the Canadians landing in Juno. Unfortunately, as the Royal Marines had failed to secure Lion-sur-Mer on the left flank, Crocker instead told Cunningham to reinforce the 6th Airborne bridgehead. This decision would result in a large gap between Juno and Sword. The Germans noticed.

Proof that humans can create a traffic jam anywhere, even in a combat zone. This impressive traffic jam takes shape at the beachhead on Juno beach as dozens of combat units coupled with an advancing tide, mill about on the narrow shore.

Meantime, Smith and the 185th Brigade were stewing. They were supposed to have “rushed” Caen moments after landing at 10 am. But split into two by traffic jams, the brigade had become stuck. Now, as the clock hit 11 am, the 65 tanks of Lt-Colonel Jim Eadie’s Staffordshire Yeomanry which were to carry the troops of Lt-Colonel F J Maurice’s 2nd King’s Shropshire Light Infantry (KSLI) still had not appeared. Maurice commandeered a bicycle and rode back to the beach to see what was happening. He found the tanks stuck in gridlock traffic.

Overlord’s planners had counted on a high tide to leave an expanded beachhead for the troops to muster in. However, strong winds had brought the water up to within ten meters of land. Within this compressed stretch of beachscape, hundreds of vehicles and thousands of men milled. A disheartened Maurice returned to Smith at 11.30. An hour later, Smith came to a decision. He told Maurice to attack without tank support. The 1st Royal Norfolks was to attack on the KSLI’s left flank, towards Colleville, while the third brigade battalion, the 2nd Warwicks were to advance on the right flank.

Together, the three battalions set off south, accompanied by the clattering Bren Gun carriers of a reserve company from the 2nd Middlesex Regiment.

Meantime, Cunningham’s 1st King’s Own Scottish Borderers (KOSB) was travelling to reinforce Pine-Coffin’s 7th Parachute Battalion at Benouville, while the 2nd Royal Ulster Rifles went to occupy the ground south of Periers. AT the same time, the 2nd Lincolns went to Cresserons to shield the right flank. They were both supposed to have tank support, but as the Staffordshires were trapped on the beachhead so too were the tanks of the East Riding Yeomanry, albeit in a worse off way. Their 60 Shermans were still on their LCTs at sea, as the beachmasters desperately tried to clear the beachhead of traffic.

Cunningham himself set off for the front with his headquarters motorcade. They had just passed a group of troops digging trenches south of Hermanville when German mortar bombs began raining down. Three explosions later, the motorcade was hit. Cunningham was unconscious and bleeding. Three of his officers were dead. The next in line for command was Colonel Denis Orr, but he was headed to Benouville with the 1st KOSB. There was no one to lead the brigade.

The war, however, did not grind to a halt. On the Ranville bridge, Paratrooper Private Eric Woods, who was on guard, heard a strange sound among the dull thuds and crackle of distant explosions and gunfire. He turned to a fellow paratrooper and asked: “Do the German play bagpipes?”

“I don’t think so,” the para answered.

But it was bagpipes. Millin was again playing “Blue Bonnets.” The paras on the bridge began cheering. It was 1 pm. The first commando to step onto bridge was Captain Alan Pyman of 3 Troop, No 6 Commando. Pyman met Brigadier Poett and Colonel Pine-Coffin and apologized for being two minutes late.

For the rest of the day, the troops on the Orne were largely undisturbed. Howard handed over control of the two bridges to the 2nd Royal Warwicks who had arrived and withdrew to join the rest of the 2nd Ox and Bucks at Ranville. Pine-Coffin’s 7th Parachute Battalion followed.

Col Pine-Coffin.jpg

Colonel Richard Pine-Coffin in 1944.

“Thus ended the first day of action for the Battalion,” Pine-Coffin would say later. “It had been a particularly full day and had cost much blood and sweat, but the objective had been achieved and it was a comforting thought to reflect that, during the whole twenty-three hours of operation, not a single German other than prisoners had set foot on the bridge. With the arrival of the seaborne forces, the west side of the Divisional bridgehead was secured firmly and the whole battalion was freed to face the other way and rejoin the rest of the Division.”

 

Finally, at 12 pm, the 105mm self-propelled Priest artillery guns of the 7th Field Regiment, Royal Horse Artillery extricated

Hillman-01.jpg

themselves from the beach traffic jam and trundled south to aid the 185th Brigade’s assault on Caen. By now, the 1st Norfolks were marching towards Colleville when they came within the vicinity of the German “Hillman” strongpoint. The place was supposed to have been taken by Lt-Colonel Dick Goodwin’s 1st Suffolk Regiment, but the attack had gone wrong.

 

Goodwin’s assault took time or organize because a gap had to be blown through the barb-wire perimeter using Bangalore torpedoes. Then "D" Company sent a platoon through the breach to knock out tank turrets fixed at the strongpoint. A shambles ensued. The assault party stumbled into a minefield beyond the wire. Two platoon officers, Captain Riley and Lt Tooley were killed. Goodwin then called up tanks from the Hussars and some Flail tanks of the 22nd Dragoons to clear the mines. Goodwin’s assault was still ongoing when the Norfolks appeared on the scene at 3 pm.

This battalion had been ordered not to tangle with this massive fortification, but its officers underestimated the German firepower here. A hail of machinegun fire plowed into the British infantry, killing at least 160 men. Hillman would only succumb to British attacks at 10 pm that night.

A Sherman tank from Regimental HQ of 13th/18th Royal Hussars nicknamed "Balaclava," shoots up German troops using crashed Horsa gliders for cover near Ranville. This photo was taken on 10 June 1944. IWM B 5345

Back at Juno, Brigadier Foster of the 7th Brigade signaled to HMS Hillary at 12 noon that the Mike-Nan Beach sector was clear of German forces and that his forces were advancing inland.

The 1st Canadian Scottish rolled through Saint-Croix-sur-Mer and Colombieres where the brigade set up its headquarters. Soon, the Winnipegs had reached Banville and together both units advanced into Pierrepont, which stood on their second D-Day milestone, along the “Elm” line. However, their final objective for the day, the “Oak” line, which ran along the Bayeux-Caen railway proved on leg too far. Some Canadian units, such as those in the east flank, including the Queen’s own and the Chaudière’s, the Regina Rifles and the 1st Hussars had difficulty reaching even the “Elm” line. As they moved past Fontaine-Henry, “B” Squadron took hits from Germans tanks and 88mm guns. Six Shermans were knocked out.

On the east flank, the 8th and 9th Brigades reached Beny-sur-Mer and Basly and kept pushing. Units of the Canadian 9th Brigade advanced as far south as Ainsy and Villons-les-Buissons. A troop from “C” Squadron, 1st Hussars under Lt W F McCormack reached as far as the “Oak” Line without meeting any opposition. In doing so, they became the only allied units to reach their final objectives on D-Day.

The way to Caen was open and incredibly, McCormack could even see the aircraft hangers at Carpiquet airfield. But with no friendly infantry on-hand to consolidate their gains, McCormack and his troop had to return to Secqueville-en-Bessin where he and his men surprised some Germans who fled.

The 1st Hussars regimental history later recorded: “In view of the losses in DD tanks due to the unsuitable weather, the First Hussars ended D-Day with a considerably smaller number of tanks than was desirable for their first night in Europe. In addition, the infantry continually had to anticipate Jerry counter-attacking heavily with armor in an attempt to kick them back on the beaches. However, the eventual appearance of the tanks with their capability of needling out the MG posts raised the morale of the infantry, so that by nightfall Harry Foster's 7th Brigade was firmly astride the line running through Fontaine-Henri, Pierrepont and St. Gabriel.”

After dark the First Hussars tanks rallied in a harbor on high ground south-west of Pierrepont.

Canadian reinforcements arrive at Courseulles on the afternoon of D-Day.

At mid-day, the Germany battery at Longues (now down to four guns) was once again belching fire at the naval armada, infuriating the Allies. This time, however, the German fire was directed at the Omaha beach sector, which triggered a response from the battleship USS Arkansas and two Free French cruisers, Georges Leygues and Montcalm. The britisj cruiser HMS Ajax once again went into the fray and in the ensuring maelstrom, gunfire pummeled into the battery’s three guns, which were knocked out. The remaining single gun kept its fire on until dusk.

 

Throughout D-Day, the Longues battery had fired 100 shells, none of which hit any Allied ships. In return, it was the object of 170 rounds from Ajax and Argonaut alone. The Longues battery would eventually collapse on June 7 in the face of an advance by the British Devonshire Regiment. One hundred twenty survivors at the battery capitulated.

The battery at Longues-sur-Mer

One of German battery casemates at Longues-sur-Mer with the earth around it churned and ravaged by Allied shells.

But that was over 12 hours into the future. Meantime, the 69th Brigade raced through Crepon and through Cruelly where four Shermans from the Dragoon Guards were hit by German fire as they tried to cross the Seulles river, which stalled the offensive.

Then, at 4 pm, something happened that the British had thought might happen – the Germans launched a counterattack. Ten StuG assault guns from the 1352nd Panzerjager Kompanie, backed by infantry from the 352nd Fusilier Battalion and 1st Battalion, 915th Infantry Regiment – Kampfgruppe Meyer – fell upon troops advancing from Crepon southwest between Bazeneville and Villers-du-Sec.

British forces fell back in disarray as the Germans punched a hole through their lines. By 9.35 pm, however, the Germans themselves were being pushed back to Saint-Gabriel. By 10.35 pm, the German battlegroup was down to six StuGs and 90 men. These forces dug in around Ducy-Sainte-Marguerite.

A German StuG assault gun in Normandy

A heavily camouflaged German StuGIII stands in a narrow French street. This image was likely taken at the French commune of Lonlay-l’Abbaye, weeks after D-Day.

As dusk came, the 1st Hampshires began entering Arromanches from the east unchecked. Nearby were companies of the 1st Dorsets approaching Arromanches from the south with tanks from Sherwood Rangers in support. As the sun fell away, both infantry battalions counted their losses: 128 killed, including four officers among the Dorsets, and five officers and 11 wounded plus 166 others killed or wounded among the Hampshires. Meantime, the 47th Royal Marine had gotten no further than Hill 72, near the road leading from Bayeux to Longues. The battalion dug-in. When dawn appeared on the following day, they would find that their CO, Lt-Colonel Phillips, had finally caught up with them.

Meantime, southeast of Tierceville, the 7th Green Howards had managed to link up with the Canadian Royal Winnipeg Rifles who had come down from “Juno” beach at Cruelly. The D-Day landings at “Gold” were over. Maddeningly, their objective for the day: the historic city of Bayeux remained in German hands.

A Sherman tank of the 8th Armored Brigade drives out from the maw of a US Navy Coast Guard LST onto the flat deck of low-riding Rhino transport and onto the shore of France on D-Day. National WII Museum

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