Although the Allied landings in Normandy succeeded in their primary object of achieving complete strategic surprise, the price paid for this was heavy casualties and slow progress in the close bocage country beyond the beaches, which was quite unsuited to the deployment of large armoured formations. For the British, Americans and Canadians losses in men and equipment began to mount alarmingly. The Germans, however, were in little better state. The fact that they had been forbidden by the Führer himself to yield a foot of ground voluntarily meant that in addition to being exposed to overwhelming air power and a flexibly handled artillery that eclipsed in its intensity anything they might have experienced in Russia, they also remained within range pf devastating naval gunfire. Consequently, the German armies in Normandy, starved of reinforcements and equipment because of the need to shore up the Eastern Front following the recent destruction of Army Group Centre, were being bled white to the point that they would be unable to fight a mobile war if the Allies broke through. Lacking the power to drive the Allies into the sea, they also knew that after a while withdrawal brought with it the risks of being swamped by the more numerous British and American armour; to Afrika Korps veterans, the situation was grimly reminiscent of the El Alamein straitjacket. For these reasons, therefore, the struggle for vital terrain in Normandy possessed a ferocity seldom equalled elsewhere during the campaign in western Europe.
To the west of Caen the little river Odon wanders through its valley and eventually joins the larger Orne south of the city. Along its southern bank is a low, rolling ridge at the eastern end of which the ground rises to a plateau forming the summit of a feature which in 1944 was marked on operational maps as Hill 112. The road from Caen to Evrecy crosses the hill from east to west, intersected to the north of the highest point by a straight track marking the course of a Roman road running from north to south, once apparently used by William the Conqueror and therefore named the Chemin du Duc Guillaume. Beside the intersection is a wayside Calvary called the Croix des Filandriers. Following the track southwards to the summit one comes across a small orchard surrounded by a tree-lined hedge with an adjoining paddock, the former bisected by a ditch running from east to west.
The hill attracts many visitors, most of whom are simply tourists, drawn to the site because it is one of the most notorious battlefields in Normandy. It is difficult for them to understand why so unimpressive a feature should have been the focus of such terrible fighting, or why Field Marshal Erwin Rommel himself should have said that he who held Hill 112 also held the key to the whole of Normandy. Once they have reached the summit, however, all becomes clear. There are commanding views of the surrounding countryside in every direction, and below the southern slopes of the hill flows the Orne, beyond which the close bocage country gives way to a relatively open landscape more suited to the operations of armoured formations than the cramped beachheads. Hill 112, therefore, was a bulwark that the Germans were prepared to defend at all costs. Montgomery, aware of this sensitivity, was determined to maintain pressure against the feature in pursuance of the Allied strategy, the essence of which was to attract the bulk of the German armour to the British sector by aggressive action while the Americans prepared for their decisive breakout to the west. His opponents, believing that the British threat was the greater, reacted exactly as he had hoped. The result was that, as the historian of the 11th Armoured Division put it, ‘All the fighting for Hill 112 was cruel, and the memory of the place is bitter.’
Ever since the ending of the Second World War veterans from both sides have continued to make their way back to the hill for much the same reasons that their fathers returned to the battlefields of the Somme and Passchendaele; they wish to exorcise the sights, sounds and stench of Hill 112 from their minds and pay their respects to their many comrades who died in that place. The British veterans, with well-shone shoes and blazers bearing their regimental badges, served with the 11th Armoured, 15th (Scottish) and 43rd (Wessex) Divisions and other formations. They remember the name they gave to the whole area north of Hill 112 and especially to its northern slopes – Death Valley. Two groups make a point of visiting the summit from time to time. Both wear the Light Infantry bugle as their badge, one surmounted by a Roman ‘corona muralis’ and the word Jellalabad, and the other by a ducal coronet and the word Cornwall. The first served with the 4th Somerset Light Infantry and they fought in the area of the crossroads near the Calvary. The second served with the 5th Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry and they fought in and around the little wood.
Most of the German veterans belonged to the Waffen SS. They insist that they were soldiers like other soldiers but over the years they have come to recognise that, because of their avowed loyalty to Hitler and Nazism and the well-documented atrocities committed by some individuals and units, neither history nor their former enemies are inclined to accept them as such. It was not simply the aggression drummed into them at SS leadership schools, for aggression is an excellent quality in a soldier and is to be respected. Rather it was that they killed and went on killing long after the need for it had ended; and because of this there were ugly incidents in Normandy when neither side took prisoners. Among themselves they preserve the memory of their elite status within the armed forces of the Third Reich when, time after time, they were thrown into the most critical battles to retrieve the situation. Those who return to Hill 112 mostly wander across its southern slopes or among the nearby villages. They refer to the hill itself as Kalvarienberg, a name which for them has a deeper significance than mere reference to the Croix des Filandriers. In the same idiom, some recall that in 1944 they had called the shell-shattered, splintered trunks of the little wood the Crown of Thorns.
Hill 112 was first fought over during Operation Epsom, by means of which Montgomery hoped to lever the enemy out of Caen, the intention being to force crossings of the Odon and Orne south-west of the city and establish a new line to the south, thus isolating the garrison and compelling its withdrawal. Operational command was delegated to Lieutenant-General Sir Richard O’Connor, commander of VIII Corps, who had won the spectacular desert victory at Beda Fomm in 1941 and only recently escaped from captivity. The troops detailed included Major-General G. P. B. Roberts’ 11th Armoured Division and Major-General G. H. A. MacMillan’s 15th (Scottish) Division, with Major-General G. I. Thomas’ 43rd (Wessex) Division in reserve. In addition to his own organic 29th Armoured Brigade, Roberts would also have the 4th Armoured Brigade under command, while the infantry received direct support from the Churchill-equipped 31st Tank Brigade. VIII Corps alone could deploy 300 guns, which were supplemented by those of the neighbouring XXX Corps on the right and I Corps on the left, giving a total of over 700. Also on call were the 15-inch guns of the monitor HMS Roberts and the combined firepower of three cruisers. The operation would receive heavy air support, not simply from ground-attack squadrons but also from bombers unloading their cargoes against enemy positions on its flanks.
For much of the way VIII Corps’ advance would be dominated by high ground on the right and O’Connor requested XXX Corps to clear this prior to the start of the main operation. On 25 June the 49th (West Riding) Division, supported by 8th Armoured Brigade, attacked at 04:00 and succeeded in capturing the village of Fontenay after a day-long battle. It was, however, unable to secure the feature known as the Rauray Spur, which remained a thorn in VIII Corps’ side throughout the following day.
It rained heavily during the night, all but flattening the standing crops. The dawn was shrouded in ground mist and blanketed by low cloud, so that all but a fraction of the air-support programme was cancelled. Nevertheless, the flickering thunder of hundreds of guns firing in their support was comforting to the men of the 15th Division as they rose from their startlines to commence the five-mile advance to the Odon. To many, fighting their first battle, it all seemed strangely similar to the training exercises they had carried out so many times in England. The division went forward with two brigades up, the Churchills of 7th and 9th Royal Tank Regiments moving with their allotted companies just behind the leading platoons, who flushed the corn ahead for panzerfaust teams.
The terrain to be covered by the advance is described in the British Official History of the campaign. ‘At the start was an area of wide hedge-less fields of standing corn, falling slowly to the Mue, an insignificant stream. From there southwards the landscape is more typical of the bocage, its small farms and orchards enclosed by thick and often steeply banked hedges, its villages half hidden in hills and its outlines broken by woods and coppices. From the southwest a ridge of higher ground extends across the battlefield with spurs running northwards towards Fontenay le Pesnel and Rauray on XXX Corps’ front and on VIII Corps’ front towards Haut du Bosq with a final hump south-east of Cheux. The ridge conceals the ground beyond, which falls to the thickly wooded valley of the Odon and rises again to the commanding hills on the south side of the river [i.e. Hill 112] … It is difficult country through which to attack and its broken contours and abundance of cover make it almost ideal for defence. The 12th SS Panzer Division (Hitlerjugend) and parts of the 21st and Panzer Lehr Divisions had been holding it for nearly three weeks and when the British attack opened they were familiar with its intricacies and knew every point of vantage. Infantry and machine gun positions had been chosen with skill and strengthened by wire and minefields; each was supported by two or three tanks and 88s sited in hidden positions but able to move to others if detected.’
Soon, all similarity to training vanished as return shellfire began to explode among the advancing ranks. Fire sparkled among the crops, farmsteads and woods as men began to pitch forward into the corn. Tank guns banged angrily in reply, streams of tracer from the Churchills’ secondary armament slicing through the target areas while, in hundreds of small combats along the corps’ front, the Scots fought their way into the outer shell of the German defences with grenade, Sten and rifle. A prisoner who had been forced to go to ground by the rolling barrage surfaced to find his unit swamped by tanks and ‘furious Scotsmen hurling grenades.’
Slowly the mist dispersed and the advance continued, battalions passing through each other as objectives were secured. The German 88mm gunners began ranging with air-burst high explosive, fuzed accurately to explode directly above the Churchills’ turrets with a deafening thunderclap. It was something with which only the North African veterans were familiar, and if it did not kill the tank commander it forced him to close down and thus reduced his efficiency. The tank destroyer crews, with their open-topped turrets, were particularly vulnerable to this counter-measure.
It was a confusing battle of which few participants retained any clear recollection. All that could be said was that the fighting moved slowly southwards, the British right flank being subjected the while to constant fire from the Rauray Spur and local counter-attacks. The villages of St Manvieu, Haut du Bosq and Cheux were only taken after hand-to-hand fighting with fanatical defenders. Two counter-attacks with infantry and tanks were mounted against St Manvieu, both being broken up by defensive fire called down by the artillery’s forward observation officers. Cheux was shelled and mortared incessantly until its streets were half-choked with rubble and its new tenants, 2nd Glasgow Highlanders, had sustained over 200 casualties.
A Squadron 7 RTR was ordered to proceed through Cheux and cross the ridge separating the village from the Odon. The remaining tanks waddled through the streets amidst gutted and burning houses and then spread out to cross the open country beyond,’ recorded Major Richard Joscelyne, the squadron’s commander. ‘Not until they started going up the hill was there any opposition. This came from Spandaus and snipers. The advance was nearing the crest when a well-known crack was heard – luckily a miss, but a prelude to a ghastly game of hide-and-seek, with the Churchills on one side of the crest and Panthers and PzKw IVs on the other. The only consolation was at that range the British 75mm could penetrate and before long brewed up a PzKw IV. Lieutenant Barrett’s tank was then knocked out by a Panther. Shortly afterwards Captain Webb’s tank was hit on the turret by HE, blinding both him and his gunner. The crew managed to bail out just before an armour-piercing shot followed. After another hour’s snap-shooting whenever a target appeared, the German tanks withdrew. The last half of the battle had not been improved by blinding rain and as dusk came tank commanders were not sorry to pull back to the forward rally.’
Meanwhile, the 43rd (Wessex) Division had been following up the Scots’ advance and cleaning out the numerous pockets of resistance left behind. Roberts’ 11th Armoured Division had not been called forward until noon and its 29th Armoured Brigade crossed the startline at 12:50 with 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry on the right, 23rd Hussars on the left and the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment in reserve. Progress was slow. The Yeomanry were mauled by an armoured counter-attack from Rauray and 23rd Hussars, held up for a while by the congestion in Cheux, found themselves involved in 7 RTR’s battle on the ridge to the south. ‘As with the Churchills, so with the Shermans. As soon as the leading tank showed itself it was hit and set on fire/ recalled the regimental historian. Those who witnessed it will always remember the shock of seeing for the first time one of the regiment’s tanks go up in flames. One moment an impregnable monster, forging irresistibly towards the enemy – the next, a terrific crack of impact, a sheet of flame, and then, where the tank had been, nothing but a helpless roaring inferno.’
At 18:00, amid torrential rain, MacMillan’s reserve brigade was committed to the fighting south of Cheux but only succeeded in reaching the outskirts of Colleville. The Cromwells of 2nd Northamptonshire Yeomanry, Roberts’ reconnaissance regiment, tried to seize a bridge across the Odon by coup de main but sustained casualties and were forced to abandon the attempt. Gradually, comparative silence descended upon the battlefield. VIII Corps had sustained heavy casualties but now lay within striking distance of the Odon; for their part, the Germans had also suffered severely and had only managed to contain the attack by committing the last reserves of I SS Panzer Corps.
At 05:00 on 27 June the advance was resumed in the face of repeated counter-attacks against Cheux, which had been taken over by the 43rd Division. 15th Division captured in succession Colleville, Tourville and Mondrainville, while on the XXX Corps sector 49th Division took Rauray during the afternoon. At about the same time the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders secured a bridge over the Odon at Tourmauville, and at 18:30 the 23rd Hussars began to cross, followed by the 1st Herefordshire Regiment and the 4th Shropshire Light Infantry from 159th Brigade, 11th Armoured Division’s mechanised infantry formation. A bridgehead 1,000 yards wide was consolidated, stretching from Gavrus on the right to the woods north-west of Baron on the left. As the Shermans gained the lower slopes of Hill 112 they duelled briefly with what were believed to be self-propelled guns, dimly seen near the crest; then darkness closed in.
By the morning of 28 June the weather had improved sufficiently to permit air support. The 23rd Hussars, accompanied by the 8th Battalion the Rifle Brigade, debouched from the bridgehead and began climbing the northern slopes of Hill 112, under fire from concealed tanks and anti-tank guns. Overcoming these, the Hussars and Riflemen cleared the last of the defenders from the broad summit at about noon and were able to see the nature of the prize they had taken. To the north every detail of the ground which had been fought over was clearly visible; to the north and northeast were panoramic views of Carpiquet airfield and Caen; to the south the Orne wandered through the flat meadows of the Caen/Falaise plain; and to the west the ridge rolled away towards the towering Mont Pinçon. During the afternoon 3 RTR came up and relieved the Hussars, while 2nd Fife and Forfar Yeomanry moved onto the eastern shoulder of the hill. Following this a joint attack by 3 RTR and 8th Rifle Brigade succeeded in capturing the little wood. The German response was to plaster the hill with artillery and Minenwerfer fire. From the southern slopes the British were engaged by what were thought to be half a dozen Tigers, moving between well-concealed fire positions, although this was not confirmed.
Meanwhile, to the north of the Odon, 31st Tank Brigade and 4th Armoured Brigade, the latter consisting of the Royal Scots Greys, the 3rd County of London Yeomanry and the 44th Royal Tank Regiment, had been engaged in protecting the flanks of VIII Corps’ salient. Roberts, worried that 29th Armoured Brigade’s right flank seemed to be hanging in the air on Hill 112, asked the commander of 4th Armoured Brigade, Brigadier Michael (later Field Marshal Lord) Carver, to send one of his regiments south of the Odon to remedy this, and 44 RTR were detailed for the task, moving into position on 3 RTR’s right rear.
During the morning of 29 June, Roberts attempted to consolidate his position within the bridgehead. 44 RTR took Hill 113, further west along the ridge, but was immediately engaged in a fierce firefight with enemy tank destroyers in which losses were sustained by both sides. Later in the day the regiment was counter-attacked and forced to abandon some of the captured ground with the loss of thirteen tanks, but succeeded in checking the enemy’s progress in conjunction with the 23rd Hussars, who had been brought forward again as the pressure increased. Then, at 22:00, the British armoured units on Hill 112 received orders to abandon the feature and retire north of the Odon, leaving a smaller, infantry-held bridgehead on the south bank. Since they believed that, despite their losses, some of which had already been made good, they had it within their power to reach and cross the Orne, the orders left them shocked and bewildered, but they nevertheless complied and by dawn had completed the withdrawal.
The reasons for this apparently inexplicable development were as follows. O’Connor was already concerned that although VIII Corps had advanced five miles into enemy territory, its salient was nowhere more than two miles wide and was a natural target for the enemy to try and pinch out from the flanks. During the afternoon an officer of the 9th SS Panzer Division Hohenstaufen was captured near Haut du Bosq, and in his possession were plans for a major counter-attack towards Cheux which confirmed O’Connor’s worst suspicions. Together with 10th SS Panzer Division Frundsberg, Hohenstaufen formed SS Lieutenant-General Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzer Corps. The Ultra intercept service had already warned Montgomery that this fresh, well-equipped formation was on its way south from Holland and the appearance of one of its divisions meant that the other was almost certainly in the area as well. This suited the overall Allied strategy admirably, although it simultaneously increased the tactical threat to VIII Corps’ salient. Montgomery, therefore, while unable to disclose Ultra as the source of his information, was entirely sympathetic to O’Connor’s misgivings and it was clearly at his urging that the salient had been shortened and VIII Corps’ armour concentrated to meet the threat.
The Germans had been planning a major strategic counter-attack into the British beachhead for some time and had simply been awaiting the arrival of II SS Panzer Corps, which they believed would give it a decisive edge. Epsom, however, had caught them off balance and they were forced to bring it forward before all their formations had been fully deployed, its objective being defined as the elimination of VIII Corps by means of converging attacks on the salient. To that end, elements of no less than six armoured divisions were grouped around VIII Corps – from east to west the Hitlerjugend, 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte Adolf Hitler, Frundsberg, Hohenstaufen, 2nd SS Panzer Division Das Reich, and the Panzer Lehr Division.