A Priest Kangaroo of 209th Self-Propelled Battery, Royal Artillery, transports infantry of 78th Division near Conselice, Italy, 13 April 1945.
A rare photo of ‘Ram’ Kangaroo armoured personnel carriers of the 1st Canadian Armoured Personnel Carrier Squadron taken on 23 October 1944, carrying British troops of the 2nd Battalion, Seaforth Highlanders, 152nd (Highland) Infantry Brigade, of the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division.
By the end of July 1944 the German army in Normandy was starting to show signs of weakness and General Montgomery instructed the GOC-in-C 1st Canadian Army to prepare a plan for an offensive in the Falaise direction.
The German front was close to where it was at the end of Operation Goodwood. The advanced line (Vorgeschobene Stellung) ran along Verrieres ridge, generally rising to Point 122. The defences were centred on villages and the ground was open enough for the German AT guns to take full advantage of their range, but verdant and close enough for these guns to be easily camouflaged.
The main line of resistance (Hauptkampflinie), actually, like the advanced line a deep defensive zone, was around five miles to the rear, far enough back so that the artillery supporting an attack on the first line would have to be moved forward to attack the second.
The action was to be carried out by 2nd Canadian Corps. Its commander, Lieutenant General Simonds produced an appreciation on 1st August which outlined how the offensive would be carried out. The appreciation described a three phase operation:
Phase 1, Two infantry divisions, each supported by an armoured brigade, were to capture the high ground towards the rear of the German front line positions, mop up bypassed German troops and secure the flanks.
Phase 2, An armoured division and an infantry division were to break into the German second line.
Phase 3, A fresh armoured division would pursue in the direction of Falaise.
When General Simonds drew up the appreciation, both lines were held by troops of the 1st SS-PanzerKorps, but before the operation started they were replaced by a fairly ordinary infantry division. The Canadian command assumed that the SS divisions were to be deployed for a defence-in-depth, so Phase 2 of the offensive would be that much more difficult.
The problem facing the Canadians was how to keep the advance moving. All previous offensives had ground to a halt once the advancing troops had moved out of the range of their supporting artillery, so plainly something new had to be tried. The answer was twofold:
Phase 1 would be carried out at night, with the infantry being carried forward in Kangaroos.
Phase 2 would be prepared by a heavy bomber raid.
The day before he produced his appreciation, General Simonds had ordered the conversion of 72 Priest self-propelled guns into Kangaroos. They were sometimes called ‘unfrocked priests’ or even ‘holy rollers’. The idea might have sprung fully formed from the General’s brain, but as General O’Connor had identified the need for such vehicles before Operation Goodwood, it is more likely that the requirement was well known, Simonds just had the opportunity.
The operation, codenamed ‘Totalize’, was originally planned to start late on 8th August, but it was moved forward 24 hours after a request from Montgomery. This meant that some of the infantry units only received their Kangaroos a few hours before jumping off, but with the very limited role the Kangaroos were to undertake, that was probably not very important.
The 2nd Canadian Corps originally consisted of the 2nd and 3rd Infantry Divisions, the 4th Armoured Division and the 2nd Armoured Brigade, it was reinforced for Operation Totalize with 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the Polish Armoured Division, and two British armoured brigades.
Phase 1 of the battle was to be undertaken by two infantry divisions, 51st Highland Division to the east, and 2nd Canadian Infantry Division to the west. The Kangaroos were to be split equally between them. In both cases by adding all their Bren Gun carriers and half-tracks to the 36 Kangaroos allocated to them they could provide an infantry brigade with cross-country transport.
Because of the problems with maintaining direction and keeping together it was General Simonds’ decision that each mounted battalion would advance in a closed-up column four vehicles wide. This was essential to get through any flailed gap in a minefield and to facilitate quick deployment on foot when the troops dismounted. The essential aid to direction keeping was Bofors guns firing tracer rounds over the columns. A direction finding radio device had been developed but, mostly because of the lie of the land, most units could not make it work. Also some tanks had compasses mounted, but most of these soon lost their accuracy.
The initial objectives of the 51st Highland Division were Cramesnil, St Aignan-de-Cramesnil, Garcelles-Secqueville and Lorguichon Wood. The secondary objectives were Secqueville-la-Campagne and the woods to its east and south. These objectives would require four battalions, but there was only enough transport for three, the fourth must go on foot. The first three objectives were allocated to 154th Brigade, which was to be supported by the tanks of 33rd Armoured Brigade. Lorguichon was to be taken by a battalion of 152nd Brigade.
The divisional commander decided that the four battalions with their various supports would advance on two axes. The western column, aimed at Garcelles-Secqueville was to consist of two mounted battalions in tandem and the eastern column of one. Each column was based on a carrier borne battalion following two squadrons of tanks and a squadron of Crabs, and followed by a further column of tanks, all in fours.
The principle was that the armoured commander was in overall command during the move, but once the troops had dismounted, the infantry commander took over.
On the western side of the break-in the initial objectives of 2nd Canadian Infantry Division were the area of Caillouet to Point 122, which was just to the west of Cramesnil, and the western flank, an area including May-sur-Orne and Fontenay-le-Marmion. The secondary objective was Bretteville-sur-Laize.
As with 51st Highland Division there were really four battalion sized objectives and transport was only available for three. Consequently the divisional commander, Major General Foulkes decided to send the division’s reconnaissance regiment to capture Point 122. This armoured car and carrier regiment included an infantry company and could be expected to hold a small objective for a short time. The other objectives were given to 4th Brigade, escorted by 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade which had one regiment detached. The whole task force, which was termed 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade group, was commanded by the armoured brigade commander, Brigadier Wyman. His approach was basically different to that of the Highland Division.
The armoured brigade group was divided into four forces, each with its own commander. It was to advance along two axes, the left being based on the reconnaissance regiment, the right on the infantry brigade. In front of each battalion sized column went units of the ‘gapping force’. Each of these units was to consist of two troops of Shermans, two troops of Crabs and a troop of AVREs. They were to be led by the navigating officer.
The gapping force preceding the infantry brigade came under one commander, the three battalions plus ancillary units such as AT guns constituted the ‘assault force’ and came under the brigade commander. The left hand, eastern, column consisting of the reconnaissance regiment and gapping unit with AT guns all came under the reconnaissance regiment commander. The remaining tanks followed behind the four columns as a reserve, they were the ‘fortress force’.
The organisation for the 2nd Canadian Armoured Brigade Group could well have been a good one had there been more time for training and rehearsals, but as the date of the operation had been moved forward a day, and units and equipment were still arriving only hours before jumping off, this time was not available. The gapping teams were only able to start rehearsals the evening before the operation started. The procedure for clearing any minefield encountered was to be slightly different from the standard one. A gap wide enough for four vehicles to drive through side by side was required. A normal gap was 24 feet wide but for this operation the gap would have to be 48 feet, so six flailing Crabs were needed, working in a lopsided ‘V’ formation.
The narrowness of the gaps being flailed meant that the battalion columns must keep in very close order. The three columns of the assault force covered a total front of 150 yards. This left only 50 yards between columns. All this was not made easier by the assault force following about five minutes behind the gapping force.
The AFV columns of the two mobile brigades formed up well behind the lines to ensure that they were not seen by the Germans. They moved forward so that they crossed the start line at 11.30 pm 7th August 1944. The bombing of the German positions on the flanks of the attack, that is on the west St Martin-de-Fontenay to Fontenay-le-Marmion, and on the east La Hogue to Garcelles-Secqueville, had started at 11.00 pm and ended at 11.40. Although these targets were marked by flare shells fired by the artillery of the attacking divisions the bombing was only partly successful, but 3,456 tons of bombs were dropped and the shock must have been stunning.
After crossing the start line the two brigades had to cover a mile to form up behind the first line of the barrage which began at 11.45. Difficulties immediately made themselves felt. The radio direction finding system worked for very few units, it was hopeless for most. Vehicle-borne compasses were thrown out by the barrage, and the clouds of dust thrown up by the bombing and the barrage made the trace rounds impossible to see and rendered ineffective attempts to generate some ‘Monty’s moonlight’. And, of course, the Germans were firing back.
The left hand column of 154th Brigade was 1st Black Watch and 1st Northamptonshire Yeomanry. As they struggled forward behind the barrage, which was advancing at one and a half miles per hour, things started to go wrong. Close to Bourguebus were two sunken lanes, obstacles to half-tracks, which bulldozers had made crossings over. These crossings were hard to find in the dark, then the Crabs found negotiating them difficult, this started to break up the column. The column was fortunate to just miss two minefields, but it ran into some German self-propelled guns which knocked out three Shermans, the flames of one lighting up the area. That was the only major mishap to this column which arrived on time close to Garcelles-Secqueville. Because of the general uncertainty about the Germans the infantry commander decided to keep his men mounted a little longer and they drove to just north of St Aignan-de-Cramesnil, where they dismounted and, after a 45 minutes wait while straggling Kangaroos and carriers caught up, cleared the village with covering fire from the tanks. They were then on their objective.
The right hand force consisted of two battalion/regimental columns. The leading column, 144 RAC and 7th Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, soon dissolved into chaos. The leading three tanks, Honeys, carrying the navigating officer and two assistant navigators fell into bomb craters and from then on in the very limited visibility the vehicles seem to have struggled on almost individually in approximately the right direction. They were helped in this by the main road on their right, even though some vehicles got mixed up with the Canadian left hand column. Worse they actually fired on the Scottish left hand column, but with only MG fire that caused no casualties. The tricky part came when crossing the railway, only one vehicle at a time could do this and two tanks were knocked out here by panzerfausts.
Fortunately by 3.30am visibility improved, the barrage had ended and the moon had come out. The head of the column approached Cramesnil, the objective. One of the first tanks there was knocked out by a panzerfaust so the tank colonel decided that it was time for the infantry to dismount. This they did and after a wait to assemble the companies the village was secured by 7.0am.
The following column, 148 RAC and 7th Black Watch, had no trouble. It followed the leading column in near perfect order and by 5.30 had secured Garcelles-Secqueville.
The mounted advance of 154th Brigade had, overall, been a considerable success though, it must be noted that the marching troops had considerable difficulty and casualties in capturing their objectives. Being by-passed did not mean that German morale would crumble and though the Germans here were certainly not elite troops, they still put up a creditable fight. The chaos that the leading right hand column fell into meant that the Crabs could not have been used as they depended on rigid control. Fortunately this did not matter. The Canadians were not so lucky.
The left hand Canadian column, based on the Reconnaissance Regiment, started off following its Crabs through a minefield, from then on visibility, as elsewhere, was so bad that the column bumbled on south and finally settled close to Rocquancourt, thinking it was closer to its objective, Point 122, than it actually was.
The right hand Canadian force was remarkably successful despite what must have seemed at the time to be total chaos. The assault force was three battalion columns moving in parallel. They were, from east to west, the Royal Regiment of Canada, the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry and the Essex Scottish. The operation started according to plan but quite soon fire from the right flank caused both assault force and gapping force to veer slightly to the left. This resulted in the link between the assault force and the gapping force being broken, and the left hand gapping unit and infantry column passing Rocquancourt to the west. The central infantry column hit the village head on and actually drove right through it while the remainder went to the west as planned.
Once past Rocquancourt an increase in German fire halted the columns. This fire came from some SS troops retained in position when the rest of the SS corps was withdrawn. As the columns had been so scattered, the dismounted companies were in no state to continue the assault on foot.
The defenders had fought back well, and in the morning it was found that 14 half-tracks and two tank destroyers were missing, though no doubt some might have returned later. The chaos the attackers were in was only sorted out in the morning when the objectives were secured, and the fortress force came up to prepare to repel any counter-attack.
This concluded the use of Kangaroos in Operation Totalize. Despite what it might have looked like to those taking part, the use of Kangaroos had been a great success. After the Kangaroos were withdrawn the operation bogged down.