The Struggle for Hill 112, June/July 1944 Part III


Eterville contained the headquarters of I/SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 22. Its defenders were already alarmed by the flow of fugitives from the château, bringing with them the seriously wounded commander of their IInd Battalion, and they were shaken by the intensity of the British artillery preparation. There can be little doubt, however, that it was the Crocodiles which broke their resistance and sent the survivors running from the village. The presence of these terrible weapons in Normandy had been kept a closely guarded secret. They projected powerful jets of clinging flame up to 120 yards ahead of themselves, consuming everything in their path and emitting dense clouds of black, oily smoke. Those of the Eterville garrison who saw the Crocodiles and survived were unable to form a rational evaluation. Those who were further back believed at the time that the British were using a new kind of incendiary shell.6 Once the village had been taken, the Crocodiles were withdrawn and the 4th Dorsets consolidated the position, their own medical team working with the personnel of a captured German aid post to treat the casualties of both sides.

It was now the turn of the 7th Hampshires, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel D. W. G. Ray. At 08:15 the battalion, supported by a Sherman squadron of 44 RTR, passed between the Château de Fontaine and Eterville, breasting the lower slopes of the spur as it advanced on Maltot with two companies from 5th Dorsets covering their right. Unknown to them, or indeed anyone else in VIII Corps, they were heading into a killing ground. Concealed in the woodland beside the Orne was a Panzergrenadier unit of Leibstandarte and harboured in a wood just east of Maltot were the remnants of Hitlerjugend’s armoured regiment, with 30 tanks, including ten Panthers. These troops took a heavy toll of the advancing Hampshires and their escorting Shermans, but worse was to follow. To seal off the breakthrough at the Château de Fontaine and Eterville, SS Major General Heinz Harmel, the commander of Frundsberg, had immediately despatched the armoured battalion of SS Panzergrenadier Regiment 21, his armoured reconnaissance battalion and some of sSS PzAbt 102’s Tigers to defeat the attack on Maltot.

As a result of these measures the 5th Dorsets’ companies made little progress and, having sustained heavy casualties, were pulled back to the château. Some sources suggest that when the depleted Hampshires fought their way through Maltot they found themselves superimposed upon a strongly defended locality, but that is only partially correct. It was true that Leibstandarte’s grenadiers were positioned in the woods to the north-east, and that Hitlerjugend’s tanks, having broken harbour, had moved forward to the outskirts of the village, but the village itself had not been prepared for defence. The battalion, in fact, appears to have reached the village about the same time as Harmel’s counter-attack force and it was therefore confronted with overwhelming odds from the outset. The remaining Shermans, undergunned as they were, were quickly shot to pieces; out of four tank destroyers that courageously remained to tough it out, three were knocked out within minutes. Hit first by a mortar bomb, then by an armour-piercing round, the battalion’s radio truck was wrecked, severing the rear link to brigade, with tragic results. Pushed back into Maltot, the Hampshires attempted to form a perimeter around the central crossroads, but this lacked a field of fire and they withdrew to some higher ground north of the village. Of B Company, last seen entering the woods near the river, there was no trace. Colonel Ray, though wounded twice and despite heavy shelling, continued to tour the position and offer encouragement. By 10:30 the enemy were closing in for the kill. Two of the FOOs were dead and it took some time for the call for defensive artillery fire to be answered – it was not, in fact, until the panzergrenadiers were on the point of breaking through the perimeter that an accurate barrage descended upon them, breaking up the attack. Shelling was resumed and Ray received his third wound. This time, although he was evacuated, it was to prove mortal. Because the medical officer had been killed earlier and the situation made it impossible to set up a proper aid post, many men died as a result of untended wounds. Others undoubtedly owed their lives to Captain J. L. Braithwaite of Headquarters Company who, though hit several times by flying shrapnel, continued to organise the collection and evacuation of wounded by whatever means possible, earning the subsequent award of the Military Cross. Corporal Henry also crossed a stretch of fire-swept ground to assist a group of wounded, then tackled an enemy tank crew, winning the Military Medal. The Hampshires’ situation nevertheless remained hopeless and at about 15:30 they received permission to withdraw. Their losses in this, their first major action, amounted to 226 killed, wounded and missing.

At this stage a blunder of Balaclava proportions occurred, almost certainly due to a communications failure among senior officers. Even as the Hampshires were pulling out, the 4th Dorsets and one squadron of 9 RTR were ordered forward to reinforce them. For the Tigers, Panthers and PzKw IVs in and around Maltot it was like a shooting gallery. Carriers, towed anti-tank guns and tanks alike were blown apart at easy range as they moved down the forward slope; after twelve of 9 RTR’s fourteen Churchills had been knocked out the two survivors retired beyond the crest to give what fire support they could from hull-down positions. As if this was not bad enough, a squadron of RAF rocket-firing Typhoons, observing movement in an area now reported clear of friendly troops, swooped down on the attackers, inflicting wounds and death. Incredibly, disorganised as they were, the Dorsets fought their way into Maltot, where they remained for the next three hours. When the order to withdraw was given it did not reach those in the village itself, the result being that many of them were taken prisoner. Of the battalion that had responded to the bugle that morning, then stormed Eterville and Maltot, all that remained were five officers and some 70 exhausted men.

For the moment, 130th Brigade was finished and of Thomas’s third brigade, the 214th, the 1st Worcesters were due to relieve the 4th Wiltshires that night and the 7th Somersets were sent up to reinforce the line at the Château de Fontaine, leaving only the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry in reserve. Fortunately, the 46th (Highland) Brigade from 15th Division had also been placed under Thomas’s command and from this the 9th Cameronians moved into Eterville. As a result of these measures, when the Germans mounted counter-attacks on the Château de Fontaine-Eterville sector during the night these were defeated.

At about noon, while the Hampshires were engaged in their deadly struggle at Maltot, Rommel arrived at the headquarters of General Hans Eberbach, commanding Panzer Group West. Both were deeply worried by the situation which had arisen at Hill 112, but Eberbach was able to reassure the field marshal that a major counter-attack would be delivered during the next few hours. Hohenstaufen, having just been relieved, was to be thrown into the fight again, counter-attacking through and in conjunction with Frundsberg to recover all the lost ground. Subsequently, he telephoned Bittrich at II SS Panzer Corps emphasising that Hill 112 was the pivotal point of the whole position and must not be given up in any circumstances; the loss of Eterville might be borne, but not that of Hill 112.

At about 15:00 Thomas conferred with the commanders of 129th and 214th Brigades. There was general agreement that Maltot could not be secured until Hill 112 was in British hands. Therefore, argued Thomas, The hill must be taken no matter what the cost!’ The only uncommitted infantry battalion left to 43rd Division was the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, and it was decided to bring this forward at once and launch an attack on the summit through the position held by the 4th Somersets.

The Cornishmen were commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel R. W. James, who, for all that he was only 26 years of age, possessed the gift of leadership and the ability to inspire his officers and men. James had joined a territorial battalion of the Somerset Light Infantry some years prior to the outbreak of war and progressed steadily, achieving the rank of major in September 1942. Since then he had served as a company commander with 4th Somersets until, just fourteen days earlier, he had been appointed to command 5 DCLI.

In the prevailing circumstances it was natural that he should set up his rear tactical headquarters within the perimeter of his old battalion, and there at 17:00 he met Major Richard Joscelyne, whose Churchills would support his attack, to carry out as thorough a reconnaissance of the objective as the limited time available would permit. When, two hours later, James held his orders group, few remained under any illusions as to the grim nature of the task ahead.

The battalion was to take the old Roman road as its centreline and advance with two companies forward, C Company (Captain Blackwell) on the right and B Company (Major Vawdrey) on the left, supported respectively by D Company (Major J. E. E. Fry) and A Company (Major Roberts). The attack had been timed to commence at 20:30 and in order to take full advantage of the heavy preliminary bombardment falling on the little wood, the companies moved forward promptly. This was understandable, since time was of the essence, but the tanks were still arriving and, instead of joining their designated companies they were forced to tag along behind the supporting wave. The unfortunate consequences of this were immediately apparent when concentrated machine gun fire scythed through B Company’s ranks, killing Major Vawdrey and inflicting severe casualties. Major Roberts at once deployed A Company and brought it forward with some of the tanks, killing or capturing the machine gun teams. B Company then took possession of the forward edge of the wood. On the right opposition had been less severe, enabling C Company to establish itself in the south-west corner of the wood and the adjoining paddock. Both reserve companies began to dig in along the line of the ditch bisecting the wood, the work being made the more difficult by numerous tree roots. James set up his forward tactical headquarters nearby, while the battalion signallers reeled out a field telephone cable to the rear headquarters with the 4th Somersets. The DCLI’s 6-pounder anti-tank guns, reinforced with four 17-pounder anti-tank guns from the divisional anti-tank regiment, came up and were emplaced on the flanks of and behind the rifle companies. Observing that only 40 survivors remained to B Company, Roberts pulled them back to cover the left flank of A Company, although this meant abandoning the forward edge of the wood.

The Germans reacted with characteristic vigour to the fall of Hill 112. The major counter-attack discussed by Eberbach and Bittrich that afternoon had been seriously delayed by traffic congestion when Hohenstaufen’s vehicles, attempting to move onto Frundsberg’s sector, ran into the latter’s transport echelons which, having just completed their resupply tasks, were travelling in the opposite direction along the narrow lanes. Nevertheless, gathering such tanks and grenadiers as were immediately available, Harmel strove to recover the summit with an immediate counter-attack. This was defeated by the combined firepower of the supporting artillery and Churchills, and by the blaze of sustained small-arms fire along the Cornishmen’s front. Like all light infantry regiments, the DCLI took a pride in their rapid-fire, accurate musketry techniques and, between the bursting of shells, Roberts could hear the section commanders ordering their men to hold their fire and mark their targets until they were certain of a kill. Somewhere in the gathering darkness a lone Panther, its supporting infantry pinned down on the slopes below, fell victim to a PIAT.

At 23:30, following standard procedure, James released the Churchills, which moved back carefully through the uncollected wounded to their forward rally area. The accepted doctrine at the time was that tanks could not fight at night, and indeed this was true in the majority of situations, but in view of what happened Joscelyne always regretted that his squadron had not remained on the hill.

No one is quite certain how many counter-attacks the DCLI threw back that night and the following day; their own history records twelve, but others give a higher figure. What is certain is that as elements of Hohenstaufen entered the battle their intensity steadily increased. For the defenders, the secret of success lay in separating the German armour from its infantry by means of artillery and mortar barrages and aimed small-arms fire, illuminated by the eerie glow of slowly descending parachute flares. For those controlling the fire of mortars and guns the difficulty lay in obtaining a clear view of the hill’s eastern and southern slopes on which the German attacks were forming up.

James, whose personal presence had inspired his companies as each attack came in, solved the problem by climbing a tree at intervals and using his field telephone to signal the location of targets. It was reckless in the extreme, but he was not the sort of officer to ask anyone to do anything which he would not undertake himself.

The second counter-attack came in at about midnight. The enemy’s tanks took up position on the flanks of the wood and raked it continuously with machine gun fire while their infantry attempted, unsuccessfully, to press home a frontal assault. Thereafter, further attacks came in so regularly that they seemed to merge into each other. At one point a number of 102 Battalion’s Tigers broke into the wood but, their crews being almost blind and bereft of the close support of the Panzergrenadiers, all they could do was wander aimlessly among the trees, firing at targets they could not properly see. Major Roberts and Sergeant Hill, seeing one halted within fifteen yards of battalion headquarters, tackled it with a PIAT at close range. The bomb failed to detonate but those within took the hint and moved on. Two more meandered into the area of the 4th Wiltshires’ C Company. One overturned a priceless mug of hot tea, the furious owner of which, Private Pipe, believing the tank to be British, told its commander just what he thought of him. Suddenly discovering their real identity, the company commander, Major A. S. P. Jeans, engaged them with a PIAT and grenades, and they trundled off into the 4th Somersets’s area, where one crashed through a hedge and straight over Captain Perks’ slit trench without harming him, although its tracks crushed his compass and binoculars. By the light of a 2-inch mortar flare a 17-pounder anti-tank gun scored a hit on one of the pair without disabling it and they both vanished into the darkness; curiously, neither of these Tigers had taken any offensive action during their travels and the probability is that their crews, frightened, disoriented and unable to see more than a yard or two beyond their vision slits, were only too glad to be on their way home. Within the wood itself two more Tigers came close to dealing each other their death blows. One actually got off two shots at close range but missed, the gunner’s nervous fingers having failed to adjust the complex optical sight, before the shaken commander of his target got off a recognition flare.

Then, quite suddenly, the Tigers were gone. The fact that they had penetrated the little wood had led to an over-optimistic report reaching Panzer Group West to the effect that Hill 112 was once more in German hands, and they were recalled. Once the truth was realised an even heavier attack was planned for the following morning.

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