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Part 2, The Allies Return

STRIKING FOR CAEN

Compared to the nightmare at "Omaha," the landings were better on the extreme right of the beachhead, in the area designated as “Sword Beach.” This sector occupied an eight kilometer (five miles) stretch of land from Lion-sur-Mer to the coastal town of Ouisterham at the mouth of the river Orne.

The area was dotted with tourist and vacation homes and lay only 14 kilometers (nine miles) from the northern part of Caen. The place was dotted with strongpoints and was held by five companies from 716th Infantry Division, plus another battalion made up of Russian and Polish “volunteers.” The unit handed the task of securing the beach was the British 3rd Infantry Division, the oldest command unit in the British Army with exploits ranging back to the Battle of Waterloo in the 19th century. That did not meant it had the most veteran of British troops or even veteran troops.
 

Commanded by Major-Gen Tom Rennie, thought to be a solid, if plodding type, the division's bulk were conscripts – who perhaps were ill-placed to secure the most important objective of D-Day: Caen. Montgomery, in his optimism, suggested that the Allies would be “knocking about” at Falaise, 32 miles south of the coast by the end of the day.

The infantry of the 3rd may have been mostly green, but their ranks had been bolstered by British and French commandos and the 212 Sherman tanks of the 27th Armored Brigade. Once inland, they would be joined on their left shoulder by the natural “adventurers” of the British 6th Airborne Division.

At 6 pm, eight LCTs carrying Sherman DD tanks of the 13th/18th Hussars Regiment set off for the beach, followed moments later by landing craft packed with British infantry. Incredibly, the plan had been to launch the tanks from 7,000 yards out, but in the end 34 out of 40 regimental tanks launched were done so from 5,000 yards. Mishaps nevertheless occurred. Two were rammed and sank. One of these was a Sherman which was run down by the LCT it had just left. Most of the crew drowned. Breakers swamped five more tanks but the remaining 27 reached the beach intact, only to take heavy fire. Four tanks were knocked out minutes later. Later, five more tanks were brought and deposited on shore by their LCT.

For one young German soldier, Grenadier Christian Hubbne of the 716th Division, on what would become the Canadian landing zone, the sight of the invasion was a shock. 

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The badge of the 13-18th Hussars. British Army

“The scale of it was overwhelming," he said. "We slept in a bunker not far from the shore and went to bed as usual that night. But soon after six o’clock we were roused by our Sergeant-Major who yelled that an enemy fleet was off shore and we must get to our battle stations at once. We rushed about in great confusion and fear, trying to eat something and drink coffee while pulling on our equipment. It took us almost fifteen minutes to reach our position in a fortified bunker which included machine-gun posts overlooking the beach. We were west of the river Orne and north of Caen. I will never forget our first sight of that invasion fleet. The horizon was filled with ships of all kinds and of course huge battleships all lined up in the grey light of dawn. We were amazed and frightened; we had never seen anything like it and wondered how we could possibly repel such an armada.”

An officer soon arrived and reminded the men not to fire until the “enemy is in the water.” At that moment, the bombardment began and the earth began to shake. It was 6.44 am. To the Germans, the bombardment appeared to go on forever. At 7.25 am, ten LCAs carrying the leading British assault companies, crunched up on Queen Red.

The naval bombardment on D-Day

The German defenses were largely untouched. As the troops entered the water, a hail of bullets and shells hurtled in their direction. The Sherman tanks and the specialist assault vehicles of the 22nd Dragoons became the object of an 88mm gun operating on the beach. British infantry began to fall in droves in the face of roaring machineguns. Nearly 200 men in the 2nd Battalion, the East Yorkshire Regiment, were scythed down on the beach.

Meantime, on the right flank, at Queen White, 10 LCAs landed “A” and “C” Companies of Lt-Colonel Richard Burbury’s 1st South Lancashire Regiment. By when the troops arrived, several Sherman DD tanks were already on the beach and burning. As "A" Company landed it went straight into a German artillery bombardment. Bullets and shrapnel plowed into their commander, Major Harwood, who fell dead. A second officer died trying to dash across the beach, but a third, Lt. Pierce, led the men towards the fortified houses at Hermanville overlooking the landing areas.

Meantime, “C” Company landed intact with few casualties and moved but the following "B" Company took the brunt of ill-fortune. It had drifted off course and had landed too far to the east of the beach, right opposite the German strongpoint which the British knew as “Cod.”

Heavy fire greeted the British. The company commander, Major Harrison, was shot up and killed almost immediately, forcing his subordinate Lt. Bob Bell-Walker to salvage the situation. Bell-Walker, with a platoon, worked their way to the left of a casemate which was raking the beach and threw grenades into the embrasure. As Bell-Walker stuck his gun into the opening and pulled the trigger to finish the job, he was killed by machinegun fire from another position to the east. His actions had earned his company a brief reprieve. As Burbury came ashore, he was killed by a sniper.

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Sergeant A Yorke of the C Squadron, 13/18th Hussars on 30 May 1944, when the battalion was was preparing for action in England.

Major Jack Stone assumed command of the battalion and the South Lancs took out “Cod” from the rear, which dramatically reduced the fire being hurled at the East Yorks. But the danger had not reduced.

 

An LCT (947) bringing in several special tanks, or “Hobart’s Funnies” as they were known, began taking withering fire. Onboard were two Sherman Crabs and four Churchill AVREs of the 5th Assault Regiment, with Lt-Colonel Arthur Cocks in one of the AVREs, named “Plough.”

Lt. Lambton Burn, a Royal Navy reservist who was aboard the vessel said that: “Shells are bursting all round. They are not friendly shorts from bombardment warships, but vicious stabs from an enemy who has held his fire until the final two hundred yards. He is shooting well shooting often. Mortar shells whine and burst with sickening inevitability. An LCT to port goes up in flames. There is a sudden jerk as our bows hit the beach. Down goes the ramp… There is a roar of acceleration and Donald Robertson in Stornoway [the first Crab, which managed to disembark] is away like a relay runner.

Dunbar [the second Crab] moves forward. Colonel Cocks leans from his turret and motions the other tank-commanders to follow. But enemy fire is now concentrated on us. There are bursts on both sides and then snap two direct hits on our bows followed by a third snap like a whip cracking over the tank hold.”

Burn was flung sideway against a bulkhead by an explosion. He watched with a sense stunned detachment as the second Sherman Crab slewed sideways into the LCT exit and blocked the door. A massive explosion erupted from one of the log-carpet AVRE tanks under Captain Fairie. The Bangalore torpedoes stowed on the tank had exploded. Cocks, who was standing nearby was killed instantly.

Landing Table for "Sword" Beach. D-Day

Graphic showing the in which order the leading British assault units landed at "Sword" beach. ©Akhil Kadidal

At 8 am, an anti-tank platoon which landed at Queen White, systematically began knocking out the German machinegun positions. Fifteen minutes later, there were about 50 British self-propelled guns pummeling German positions. By 8.45 am, Queen White and Red had been linked. The beach front was a mass of men and machines. The South Lancs moved on to Hermanville. The objective of the 3rd Division was to pass through Ouisterham and capture Caen and the nearby Carpiquet airfield. The commando contingent, which was to link up with the 6th Airborne paratroopers, had started to arrive.

The first commandos ashore were a 177-man-strong company strong force of Free French forces under Commandant (Major) Phillipe Keiffer. Following behind was the rest of Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade at Queen Red. Elsewhere, the special forces of 41 and 46 Royal Marine Commandos landed to the west, behind the South Lancs in Queen White.

The French Commandoes, of the 1st Bataillon de Fusiliers Marins Commandos (itself part of Britain’s No 10 Inter-Allied Commando), came ashore at 7.31 am and was immediately in action. Several men had been hit, including Keiffer. Some 40 of the French troops died or fell wounded on beach. The rest, assembling into three groups, went to their objectives: a strongpoint at Riva Bella in Ouisterham where a towering old casino building had been turned into a fortress.

Meantime, the rest of Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade had landed at 8 am on the far left of the Sword Beach sector, east of Strongpoint Cod, at a former holiday camp. At the landing craft ground up on the shoreline, Lovat, followed by his piper Bill Millin stepped into the water and followed scores of men towards the beach from where German fire was racing towards them. The men heard the sounds of a bagpipe start and soon Millin was playing “Highland Laddie.”

Lovat turned around and gave him a smile. By when the commandos stepped out on shore, the noise of battle nearly drowned out the bagpipe. As German fire hurtled towards them, Lovat, Millin and other members of the headquarters group ran to the top of the beach. Soon, there were 1,200 commandos on the beach.

As I look at these photos of British commandos, I am reminded of how remarkable and exotic these units were and how they have fired the imaginations of writers, filmmakers and video game makers in the 70 years since the end of WWII. And of course, I am reminded of their effect on Hitler, who, out of fear and loathing called for their executions.

Lt-Colonel Derek Mills-Roberts of 6 Commando was nearby bellowing at his men to get up and move out. Millin then saw a Sherman Flail tank pummeling the beach for mines. On its path were a line of eight or nine British wounded. A group of German prisoners of war on the beach, began shouting: “England, England!” Unseeing, the tank went right over the wounded, killing them all.

Some furious British troops stopped the flail tank after the carnage was done, but by then, Millin, Lovat and the other commandoes were already pushing on towards the Orne bridgehead. Within a few hours, there were at Benouville.

A group of German prisoners en-route were in a state of fright at the appearance of the commandos. The road forked right, into the village and down it, the column marched until a Church appeared. A hail of automatic fire shot into the commandos from the steeple. Men fell wounded but then a light tank rumbled up. Mills-Roberts ordered Millin to follow the tank and Millin did, while playing “Blue Bonnets over the Border.” The tank shelled the church steeple until the Germans were killed. Two hundred yards away was “Pegasus Bridge” and the paratroopers.

Map of "Sword" Beach on D-Day

At Queen White, the 1st South Lancs were advancing on the village of Hermanville. From here, their objective was Bieville and then Caen. Hermanville, however, lay amid marshy land which favored the defender. Accompanied by the machine-gunners of the Middlesex Regiment in Bren carriers, the Lancs entered the village only to be hit with sniper fire from a church belltower. The British scattered. A platoon flushed the snipers out. After the bodies of the Germans lay mangled, the acrid smoke of the gunfight still raw in the air, the British fanned out and secured Hermanville.

Simultaneously, German resistance at the casino was snuffed out after the French commandos brought up a Sherman DD from the 13th/18th Hussars. It was 9.30 am. Meantime, Englishmen of No 4 Commando were penetrating through Ouisterham to the port, which they reached at 10 am. A unit of Germans, dug-in at the locks, opened fire, pinning the commandos down. Finally, a Churchill AVRE arrived at 2.30 pm and blasted the Germans to pieces.

At Hermanville, the tanks of “A” Squadron of the 13th/18th Hussars had materialized, their orders to race on through towards Bieville. The British did not know what opposition lay in wait beyond the village until 9.45 am when an RAF reconnaissance pilot reported German tanks north of Caen. These were 17 self-propelled guns of the 5th Company, 200th Sturmgeschutz (Assault Gun) Battalion under Major Becker at Epron. The Germans were also racing to deploy a motorized infantry company from the 192nd Panzer Grenadier Regiment plus three 75mm Pak40 anti-tank cannons and three 20mm Flak38 guns into a defensive line between Periers and Saint-Aubin-d’Arquenay. A battle was in the making.

British troops move towards Caen with bicycles on D-Day

Troops of the British 3rd Infantry Division strike south towards the Norman capital, Caen. Montgomery expected his men to be in the city by dusk. Five weeks would pass before British-Canadian troops entered the city, by when it been smashed near beyond recognition. IWM

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