Bocage Fighting – the British Experience Part II

British Sherman Bulldozer

On June 28, a sniper of the “Hitlerjugend” surrenders to British soldiers of the 49th I.D. Photo: IWM

Derrick Watson recorded that Nangle was awarded the MC for this patrol: ‘It raised the morale of A Company and the battalion. Of particular comfort was the discomfiture of Brigade Intelligence when they received the gruesome remains. They were not amused.’ Watson also recalls:

a daring visitor who made the hazardous trip behind a DR from the safety of Rear Echelon to Bn HQ. This was a Private Buggs whose official duties were to bring a load of bumf for the Adjustant to sign. He also brought the post up. He also milked the cows in the neighbourhood. This meant a plentiful supply of milky porridge for breakfast. The Adjutant believed Buggsy should be mentioned in despatches for these duties but the CO said there was no provision in King’s Regulations.

Two sad things happened on 26 June in the bocage campaign. 1st RB lost three officers killed that day from shelling – Major Dorrien Smith, Captain G.S.w. Talbot and Lieutenant James Caesar. And at 0500 it was learned that 4th County of London Yeomanry would soon fight their last battle and were to leave the division, take their tanks to Carpiquet aerodrome and amalgamate with their sister regiment 3rd CLY This would be the end of a long valiant run through the desert and Italy – loaded with battle honours. Their replacement would be the dashing, famous (but recently untried) 5th Inniskilling Dragoon Guards.

By 22 June 1st RB had lost fourteen officers and 163 other ranks in fifteen days of fighting in the bocage. At Le Pont Mulot they received a large draft of reinforcements from the 8th Battalion 60th Rifles.

The 1/5th Queens in late June were positioned on reverse slopes just north of the shattered village of Livry, in an area that was bocage at its worst. The infantry, no longer lorried, living in slit trenches in the rain, suffered a steady drain in casualties from shell and mortar fire and occasionally from snipers. All the time enclosed in the damp prison of the bocage, the lines of sight bounded by a hedge 200 yards away. At night there was the constant anxiety of patrolling through close hedges, which were often mined to pin down or identify an elusive enemy.

These were Derrick Watson’s memories of that time.

Later in the campaign Rex Wingfield wrote:

Waiting for action is frightening but once the battle or the patrol starts, fear vanishes. In battle so much is happening at once, you’re so busy that you haven’t time to be scared, you haven’t even time to think. You do things instinctively. But at night or in some pause in the battle you have got time to think. The mate you saw go down. The tank which ‘brewed up’. The shell which stuck in the ground two feet away and failed to go off. When Ted fell, did he try to break his fall? If he did, it probably meant that he was only wounded, but if he seemed to sag at the neck, knee or ankle you knew what that meant. You look into the dusk. A solitary man is digging a trench. You watch him carefully. If he digs slowly and apathetically you know his mate is dead.

On the last day of June the weary division was pulled out of the line as the American 2nd Armoured took over the sector. June ended with a lot of wet weather and Bill Bellamy recalled ‘always living in thick glutinous mud. This made the simple business of living so much more difficult. The mud got into the bedding because as we huddled together for shelter under the waterproof covers we couldn’t help treading on other people’s bedding in our efforts to reach our own. Cooking became a dreadful chore and nothing ever seemed free from wet and filth.’ Meanwhile Cherbourg had fallen to the Americans on the 24th and 50th Division was battling on the left (eastern) flank and took Tilly, but the enemy still held Hottot.

At Cully near Coulombs on 1 July W.E. Mason with 13th Medium Regiment RA, part of 8 AGRA, which often supported the Desert Rats, recalls:

While I was waiting for the main body of RHQ to arrive I had a chat with some men from the armoured division. They were able to give me some eyewitness accounts of actions against the Germans. The future looked very black after this discussion! We were in an orchard in a hollow and in front of the guns. Consequently found it very noisy especially when we fired a large barrage into Carpiquet aerodrome. [And later:] We had some bad luck at Le Mesnil Patry for Capt. Jones of B Troop and his signaller disappeared into the blue. Capt. Kerr had a nervous breakdown. Capt. Eve of C Troop was buried by a shell and had to be dug out. Capt. Williams the Adjutant had a nervous breakdown and was posted. In the section Dave Cutts injured his foot when riding his motorcycle, Signaller Key had trouble with his ears. Both went to hospital.

Mason and Co. went to a cinema in the village of Marcelet and saw a film with Lana Turner in it, and he and his mate played a game of ‘Spoof’ or ‘Sevens’. His friends Signaller Free and Corporal Shan were accused of looting in Fresnay, but ’Jumbo’ Free talked the Provost Marshal out of a charge! ‘Normandy Stomach’ was a violent form of diarrhoea from which many troops suffered, caused by food infected by flies that had fed on the corpses of the long-dead cows to be seen in every field.

Major B.E.L. Burton of the Queens described the next period, 1–18 July:

We always lived in the open. Houses and barns were used as recreation rooms but all troops slept out. For the most part we leaguered in fields and orchards tucking ourselves away in any available cover. Slit trenches were dug. When the weather was fine and warm it was lovely and very healthy. In wet weather bivouacs had to be improvised out of ground sheets and gas capes but it was not really possible to keep the bedding dry. Food in the early stages consisted of compo packs containing rations for 14 men for a day. Everything was tinned and ready cooked, only requiring heating – contents varied but one got very tired of ‘compo’ after a time. When the ‘build up’ allowed, field service rations including fresh meat, bread and tea were issued instead. There is no doubt that the rations were very good. The cigarette issue averaged fifteen a day. Mail from home came regularly and quickly. The homeward mail at first was slow. Companies went regularly by turns to Bayeux for baths and cinemas. But also we had training infantry with tanks – a careful slow system of co-operation in bocage country.

Scots Guards Fighting Through the Bocage by Terence Cuneo.

Action of the right flank, 3rd Battalion Scots Guards during the advance from Caumont to Les Loges, Normandy, 30th July 1944. Commanding the Churchill tank, Lochinvar is Lt Robert Runcie later to become Archbishop of Canterbury.

Rex Wingfield with 1/6th Queens later noted:

We had never seen inside of a tank before, so we climbed into the Cromwell. The turret was very small, packed with guns, amongst odd food and of course cigarettes. Only dwarfs could find room to move in there. The crew must be contortionists or deformed. On a Cromwell sit between the turret and the exhaust in the middle. Too near the turret, the wireless static, words of command and loading would drown out noise of incoming shell or mortar bomb. In that case lie flat in the middle as shells burst up and outwards.

He reckoned Sherman Fireflies were difficult to climb and lodge on.

Of that seventeen-day rest period Bill Bellamy, 8th Hussars, wrote later:

The weather started to improve and we spent our days training with 131st Queens Brigade in the art of infantry/tank co-operation. Most of them hated tanks, considering them to be noisy, smelly, absolute giveaways to their positions and a large target which drew enemy fire. Despite this we got on very well together and forged a degree of understanding which was to prove very valuable in the months ahead. During the period of our stay at Jerusalem we set up a Squadron Officers Mess and brought the mess three-tonner up from Echelon. It was a great benefit to us all, as we learned to talk about our ideas, experiences and problems under relaxed conditions.

Bellamy also met officers from 5th RHA and 1st RB with whom the 8th Hussars often found themselves in the same Battle Group.

On July 1st a sad and gory episode took place [recalled Leslie Gosling, 3rd RHA]. We were just about to hand over to 2nd US Armoured Division. ‘M’ Battery was firing intensive scale; we thought we were pretty slick and could have 3 or 4 rounds per gun in flight at the same time. The 25-pounder gun breech was knocked open before full recoil and the next round slammed in. Unfortunately the No. 4 was poised to reload, but holding a round with a defective 117 fuse, the breech struck the cap and a premature detonation resulted. One man only of the six-man detachment survived and he lost a leg at the thigh. The rest were splattered, and it was not until the next morning that the No. 1’s head was seen suspended in the trees above.

During this time out of the line Trooper W. Hewison, 1st RTR, one evening (3 July) ‘heard pipes playing tonight – went over dozens of fields to find them. At last saw a lone piper pacing back and forward – a captain of the CLYs. Whilst I was there he played a lament, a Strathspey and a march. I asked him to play “Mushlochy Bridge” and he did. I’m sure if I ever go to Hades I’ll find a Scotsman playing a reel round the Devil.’ Later, on the 13th, ‘New CO [Lt-Col E.H. Gibbon, as Col Carver had been promoted to command 4th Armoured Bd] had a shufti at the ranks and grinned inanely all the time but doesn’t seem a bad bloke. Came into Len Dauncey’s crew as a lap gunner.’ The regiment was in laager for a fortnight. On the 17th ‘Big push going in today or tomorrow. 8 Corps & 12 Corps in the line with 30 Corps in reserve. The Geordies say they will be in Paris in a week. I wonder.’

Until 17 July the division remained in the orchards around Jerusalem between Bayeux and Tilly. In this uneventful period many officer changes were made among the senior officers. Lieutenant-Colonel J.H. Mason took over command of 1/6th Queens and Lieutenant-Colonel M.F.P. Lloyd assumed command of 1/7th Queens. Brigadier E.C. Pepper from the Bedfordshire and Herts became OC 131st Queens Brigade, LieutenantColonel J.B. Ashworth OC 1/5th Queens. Many reinforcements – 2nd and 3rd ‘flights’ – arrived for the depleted Queens battalions, but they remained well under strength.

1 Assault Brigade, 79th Armoured Division, could not draw reinforcements for AVRE crews from the usual Royal Engineer channels, a specialized training and reinforcement unit was deemed necessary, especially in the light of the casualty rates amongst the AVRE crews. To meet this need, 557 Squadron was withdrawn from 42nd Assault Regiment and reformed as 557th Assault Training Regiment. However, it did not move to France with the regiment but remained in Britain and moved to Parham in Sussex, close to Arundel. Lieutenant Colonel R. P. G. Anderson, previously of 6th Assault Regiment, was appointed to command the new training regiment. At much the same time, assault squadrons were each reduced in strength by one troop to three troops while the number of AVREs dropped from twenty-six to twenty in each squadron.

However, there were some demands for assault engineer support and the brigade history notes that

During the mopping up operations in the area of Tully-sur-Seulles and Villers Bocage, ‘Dustbins’ were used for a new type of demolition – creating gaps in the ‘bocage banks’ which divided the small fields and which gave such excellent cover to the defending German guns and tanks. Except for the plain between Caen and Falaise, Normandy was difficult tank country, as the heavy bocage banks and numerous ditches provided good natural anti-tank obstacles, and the dense hedgerows on top of the banks gave good concealment for well placed anti-tank guns.

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