The Struggle for Hill 112, June/July 1944 III

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.

In the meantime, James had asked for assistance. His Cornishmen, had suffered a steady toll of casualties from constant artillery and mortar fire, and from about 03:00 they were harassed by some of Hohenstaufen’s machine gun teams which had established themselves in the dry stone wall at the forward edge of the wood, approximately 100 yards from the British trenches.

The response to James’s request came in the form of a squadron of Royal Scots Greys, whose counter-attack bore a tragic similarity to their charge at Waterloo. At first, as then, all had gone well. Their Shermans had crossed the shallow summit and roared past both flanks of the little wood to silence or drive out the troublesome machine gunners. Unfortunately, this brought them within view of the enemy armour in the valley below and within minutes four had been set ablaze and a fifth exploded, its turret spiralling skywards before landing on its roof beside the burning hull. Wisely, the squadron commander decided to retire beyond the crest and give such support as he could from hull-down positions.

The German attacks began again at 06:15, converging from the directions of St Martin to the east and Esquay to the south. Initially they were made by the Panzergrenadiers of both divisions, strongly supported by artillery, mortars and machine guns, but they were decimated by the British defensive barrages and then cut to pieces by the Cornishmen’s rifle and light machine gun fire. There were times when the summit and slopes of the hill were invisible to German observers because of bursting shells. There were times, too, when the British FOOs called in their barrages to within 150 yards of their own position; one such was Lieutenant King, who, with complete disregard for his own safety, stood on an exposed bank the better to control his guns and is believed to have been killed by a splinter from a British shell.

As the morning wore on, 102 Battalion’s Tigers returned to spearhead the attacks while other tanks engaged the wood with high explosive, their shells bursting among the trees and sending a shower of jagged splinters hissing downwards into the slit trenches, for which there had been no time to provide headcover. The southern thrust of the German attack ran into a particularly violent storm of artillery fire controlled by a Lysander air OP, pinning down the panzergrenadiers. The Tigers, though enjoying some protection in the sunken lane up which they were moving from Esquay, were hit repeatedly. The high explosive shells could not penetrate the thick armour, but they could cause damage to the exposed running gear and the transmitted shock of exploding medium calibre rounds could cause internal problems such as ruptured fuel, coolant and lubrication lines or unseat machinery that would ultimately render the vehicle inoperable. For the moment, however, the Tigers were still capable of fighting. They broke into the paddock, blowing apart the anti-tank guns that tried to oppose them, then, while some engaged the Greys’ Shermans in a one-sided duel, others systematically destroyed the DCLI’s Carrier Platoon, which had come forward to deliver supplies and evacuate as many of the wounded as possible. Yet, with their own infantry still pinned down and mindful of their experience during the night, they did not attempt to penetrate the wood. One Tiger did not return from the attack and it may well have been this which approached the Somersets and was immobilised by one of the Greys’ Shermans, almost certainly a Firefly. When the crew came forward to surrender a few men opened fire on them, killing three. It was the act of those who were in action for the first time and had not yet come to terms with the bestiality of war. Having, in earlier attacks, seen friends of years’ standing literally blown apart in their trenches by the main armament of the enemy’s tanks, they were at that moment possessed by a blinding hatred for their crews. What had occurred was uncharacteristic and it was subsequently regretted.

It was about this time that Colonel James, having again climbed a tree the better to spot for the gunners, was shot dead by a burst from a German machine gun. The news that their young and popular commanding officer had been killed deeply saddened the Cornishmen, but it remains unclear precisely what happened next. Certainly there were very few senior officers left in the battalion and, for the moment, central control seems to have lapsed. The men were terribly tired, having been three nights without sleep, and their dead lay throughout the wood. Somehow, the rumour spread that orders to withdraw had been received and the companies complied; the source of the rumour has never been identified but one theory suggests that it might have been German.

The 4th Somersets, dug in some way to the rear, had become accustomed to the trickle of Cornish walking wounded passing through their position, but at about 11:00 this suddenly expanded as groups of clearly unwounded men, some running, others supporting wounded comrades, began heading for the rear. The suggestion of panic was emphasised by a DCLI officer trying to halt them; no one could understand what he was shouting because part of his lower jaw had been shot away. One of the Somersets’ platoon sergeants, noting how unsettled his own men were by the sight, threatened to ‘shoot the first bastard who moved.’ None of the ‘bastards’ did. It was Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Lipscomb, commanding the Somersets, who recognised that the Cornishmen were not out of hand but simply confused, exhausted and near the end of their physical and mental resources. He rallied them quietly and divided them into their company groups, none of which were more than a platoon strong. Major Roberts, Major Fry, Captain Gorman, the adjutant, and the few remaining senior NCOs then led them back to the wood, where they reoccupied their positions. Half a dozen or so panzergrenadiers had moved into the trees during their absence but they had had enough and quickly surrendered. Meanwhile, anxious to reassure the Somersets that the crisis had passed, Lipscomb and Brigadier Mole seated themselves on their walking sticks and chatted amiably for a while, apparently heedless of their own safety.

For a short period the DCLI were left in comparatively undisturbed possession of the wood. At about 14:00, however, the enemy fire intensified in obvious preparation for another attack. This time it came in from the direction of Maltot, spearheaded by Hohenstaufen’s assault gun battalion. Some anti-tank guns remained to the Cornishmen on this flank but because of the configuration of the slope they could not be depressed sufficiently to engage the low-slung vehicles. The artillery was requested to lay smoke and under cover of this Lieutenant Bellamy had one of the 17-pounders manhandled forward until it would bear. Despite the fact that he and his crew were only able to fire a few rounds before the gun was put out of action, they seem to have scored several kills, for in his report the German commander records that three of his assault guns were knocked out and three more received direct hits, the latter probably by artillery fire. That left four to complete the task, but in the event it was to prove sufficient.

By 15:00 Roberts had been wounded and the battalion’s strength had shrunk to about 100 men. Gorman had been despatched to inform the brigade commander personally that the position was becoming untenable. The assault guns were closing in, slamming high explosive shells into the wood and raking it with machine gun fire. With casualties mounting and close quarter anti-tank defence now limited to a handful of PIAT bombs, Fry, now the senior surviving officer, sent a runner to brigade with the recommendation that the remnant of the battalion should either be relieved or permitted to withdraw behind the crest. No answer was received.

He was now on the horns of a terrible dilemma. To abandon the position without orders could result in serious personal consequences; on the other hand, the Army’s code would support him if, as the man on the spot, he acted with considered judgement in the light of the prevailing circumstances. Only two alternatives existed. Either he could withdrew his men, who would then form a nucleus upon which the battalion could be reconstructed; or, he could fight on in the certain knowledge that the position would be overrun in a few minutes. Whatever he decided, the wood was about to fall into German hands, anyway. In the circumstances, he decided to withdraw and, under cover of a smoke screen, the Cornishmen pulled back, carrying their wounded with them, to take up a new position behind the 4th Somersets. For the rest of his life Fry was haunted by the thought that he should have hung on and fought to the bitter end, but that would only have resulted in annihilation to no purpose. As it was, 5 DCLI had incurred 320 casualties in fifteen more or less continuous hours of battle, and of these 93 lay dead in and around the little wood; with justifiable pride, the regimental history records that only one man was taken prisoner. Incredibly, the heroism and tenacity of so many of the battalion’s officers and men was not recognised by the award of a single decoration.

The withdrawal of 5 DCLI marked the virtual end of Operation Jupiter. True, the summit of Hill 112 remained a no-man’s-land, but the operation had achieved its strategic objective of tying down the German armour. Fighting erupted again during the night of 15 July and continued for the next fortnight. While the summit of the hill was masked by smoke and high explosive, the 43rd, 15th and 53rd (Welsh) Divisions in succession, supported by the Churchills of 31 and 34 Tank Brigades and Crocodiles, mounted a series of heavy raids on the nearby villages – Le Bon Repos, Esquay, Evrecy and Maltot. These, as intended, provoked fierce counterattacks which further wrote down the German armour. On 18 July Operation Goodwood, a drive by three British armoured divisions north of Caen, was halted by a strong anti-tank defence but convinced the German High Command that the Allies intended breaking out on the British sector. On 25 July the American breakout, codenamed Cobra, began and soon the US Third Army was sweeping round the German left flank. Simultaneously, the British and Canadians were driving in the enemy’s right. By the middle of August the German armies in Normandy, held fast within the jaws of a trap, had been systematically destroyed.

It would be difficult to overemphasise the part played by the sustained and costly pressure maintained on the Hill 112 sector in achieving this complete victory. Forced by events elsewhere to withdraw, II SS Panzer Corps left the area during the night of 3/4 August. A few days later some members of 5 DCLI’s Assault Pioneer Platoon erected a board on the summit showing the regimental badge and the words CORNWALL HILL JULY 10th-11th 1944. Other regiments, too, felt that they had some claim on the hill but they knew what the Cornishmen had been through and not only let the board stand but also referred to the little wood as Cornwall Wood in their own histories. Later, the 43rd Division, which was to fight many battles but none so bitter as that for Hill 112, erected its own granite memorial on the same site.

The story had a postscript. In 1945, following the German surrender, Major Roberts became commandant of a prisoner of war camp and had the opportunity of interrogating two SS men who had fought at Hill 112. One had served in 102 Heavy Tank Battalion and he recalled that of the nine or ten Tigers that had attacked the wood during the night only two returned undamaged. The other was one of Frundsberg’s panzergrenadiers, who stated that the regiment which had borne the brunt of the fighting had been reduced to five or six men a company. In fact, by the time of the final German collapse in Normandy Hohenstaufen and Frundsberg had each been reduced to the strength of a weak infantry battalion with only the former retaining a few of its tanks and guns. The once-mighty II SS Panzer Corps, now a skeleton of its former self, was sent to Holland to refit.

 

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