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 Post subject: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Operation Perch
Unread postPosted: 26 Jul 2014, 17:49 
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D-Day @ 70
Operation Perch, 7th - 14th June 1944
And the Battle for Villers-Bocage
Quote:
"For Christ's sake get a move on! There's a Tiger running alongside us fifty yards away!" - Sergeant O'Connor

Image
Two of the five Panther tanks knocked out by Sergeant Wilfred "Spit" Harris's tank at the west end of Lingèvres.


By John Ash

Quote:
Miles Dempsey always considered the possibility that the immediate seizure of Caen might fail. - J. Buckley

Overview:

Quote:
"The quick capture of that key city [Caen] and the neighbourhood of Carpiquet was the most ambitious, the most difficult and the most important task of Lieutenant-General J.T. Crocker's I Corps". - L. Ellis

Operation Perch was a large British offensive which began the day after the Normandy Landings and continued until the 14th June 1944. The controversial battle is often regarded as a wasted opportunity as it failed to capture Caen largely because of the failures of British divisional and corps commanders, and because of the conduct and ability of a number of experienced, but arguably tired British units which had been in the vanguard of the war effort throughout the open expanses of North Africa and were therefore potentially ill-suited to the close, tight knit, terrain of North-West Europe.

Although evidence now suggests that it was not imperative that the British capture Caen on D-day itself, as drawing out its capture could only be increasingly beneficial to the British and the other Allies, its ultimate and eventual capture was vital and it is clear that capturing Caen early on was attempted – the battle for Caen was only to be drawn out in the case of heavy resistance, as was encountered on D-Day itself, yet just one day later, British forces were substantially stronger. Original plans prior to the invasion called for General Sir Miles Dempsey's Second Army to take Caen and establish a front-line from Caumont to l'Éventé, with the additional aims of acquiring or building airfields for the RAF and protecting the eastern flank of American forces while they marched on Cherbourg. The terrain in the area was considerably more open and more receptive to larger operations and tanks - this however, was one of the benefits of drawing out Caen's capture as the Allies outnumbered the Germans in tanks and mobile units, the shorter combat ranges than those encountered earlier and later in the war acted as a technological equaliser, and transforming parts of the Normandy campaign into a more fluid engagement would be to Allied advantage - especially for the British and Canadians, who had superior tanks and tank/anti-tank guns to their American counterparts.

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Tanks from the 4th County of London Yeomanry, 7th Armoured Division, move inland from Gold Beach, 7 June 1944
- Sergeant Christie No 5 Army Film & Photographic Unit - This is photograph B 5251 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums


D-Day & German Counter Attacks

Quote:
"The objectives given to Crocker's seaborne divisions were decidedly ambitious, since his troops were to land last, on the most exposed beaches, with the farthest to go, against what was potentially the greatest opposition." - C. Wilmot


On D-Day, the 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division landed on Gold Beach and was ordered to move inland toward Bayeux and Tilly-sur-Seulles. 7th Armoured Division and 8th Armoured Brigade were to take over and continue Mont Pinçon. Despite a successful landing and a 5 mile advance, heavy resistance near Le Hamel and a German counter attack delayed the advance and prevented the British achieving their D-Day objectives although Bayeux was reached and contact was made with the Canadians moving up from Juno Beach.

The German counter attack occurred on the afternoon of D-Day when German LXXXIV Corps ordered its reserve, an armoured formation known as Kampfgruppe Meyer, to attack the flank of 50th Division near Bayeux. During the counter attack, the German's peeled a battalion off to attack Omaha Beach which severely weakened the strength of the German offensive and it turned into a costly failure. LXXXIV Corps deployed their last reserve, Mobile Brigade 30, again towards Gold Beach in order to sustain or renew the counter-attack, however this force was destroyed by the British - the survivors of both attacks were trapped in a pocket near Bayuex, which amazingly went unnoticed until the morning of the 9th June, when the survivors broke out.

Although both attacks resulted in substantial losses and did not meet their objectives, they halted the British short of Caen. It was not inconceivable that forces from British 3rd Infantry Division and 27th Armoured Brigade moving inland from Sword Beach could have taken Caen, but the 27th was stuck in traffic coming off of the beach, and the infantry during their near-10 mile advance were forced to divert to engage strong German defences and a counter attack by 21st Panzer Division.

In the evening of 7th June, I SS-Panzer Corps transferred from Seventh Army to Panzer Group West. Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt, Supreme commander OB West, ordered a major counter offensive on the 10th June but this was cancelled by Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, Army Group B commander, because of the shortage of forces available. German forces were hastily trickling in from all over the area into Normandy in order to contain the invasion. The I SS-Panzer Corps consisted of the Panzer-Lehr-Division which was one of the strongest divisions in the German army (according to George Forty, the division contained 237 tanks and assault guns as well as 658 half-tracks - double the number of other panzer divisions.) It also included the "fanatical teenagers" of the 12th SS-Panzer Division Hitlerjugend and when the presence of 21st Panzer Division and other armoured formations is taken into consideration, German armoured strength operating in the British sector was very formidable.

Operations Perch & Wild Oats

Quote:
"[Tilly-sur-Seulles] was one of the first of the many towns and villages which were well-nigh obliterated in the process of liberation" E, W, Clay, Major.


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Night, 9/10th June

Operation Perch, was intended to encircle and capture Caen. Perch started on the 7th June with a bold move south east towards the city. British XXX Corps were able to establish a direct land link with the Americans while pushing the 50th Northumbrian Infantry Division toward the village of Tilly-sur-Seulles. Late on the 9th June, the division reached the outskirts of Tilly-sur-Seulles and encountered the tanks of the Panzer-Lehr Division, a counter attack from both the Panzer-Lehr and 12th SS-Panzer Divisions later overran a British infantry company before being halted and beaten back in the early hours of the 10th June. In ensuing struggle the village would change hands numerous times. The Panzer-Lehr Division had arrived in Tilly-sur-Seulles on the 9th June losing around 200 vehicles in the process of its 100 mile drive north - according to Max Hastings, who interviewed the division's commander, Bayerlein, the division lost 130 trucks, 5 tanks, and 84 self-propelled guns, out of 3,000 vehicles. The division was diverted from the rest of I SS Corps because of the successes enjoyed by the 50th Northumbrian Division which was felt to be a threat which had to be met.

On the 9th June Caen was still in German hands and elements of 12th SS-Panzer Division, 21st Panzer Division and the remains of 716th Infantry Division moved to the city and used it as a launch pad for several attacks against the Anglo-Canadian beachhead. Allied ground forces commander General Bernard Montgomery met with Lieutenant-Generals Miles Dempsey and Omar Bradley (the British Second and First US army commanders respectively) and decided to amend Perch and the general offensive strategy for British Second Army. Perch would continue but with some major changes, first XXX Corps would push 7th Armoured Division to Évrecy and Hill 112 instead of Mont Pincon as originally intended. Second, this would be joined by a thrust from British I Corps towards Cagny (6 miles south east of Caen) in order to envelop Caen in a pincer movement - this was to be known as Operation Wild Oats and would involve the 51st (Highland) Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade. This was to be supported by an airborne drop, but a drop was not feasible and never took place.

Operation Wild Oats would be delayed by the many counter attacks launched by the 21st Panzer Division and although the presence of a motley crew of scattered paratroopers and heavily armed glider forces may have quickened the operation's pace, it is likely that the casualties both of the airborne contingent and of the armoured units (who would have had to rush to link up with the airborne troops) would have been severe - casualty conservation was and would remain a key factor in British and especially Canadian conduct through the rest of the war, and it was a particular burden in this moment.

On 10th June, 7th Armoured Division took moved to relieve the 50th Northumbrian Division and continue the advance. Late in the evening, the 7th reached the outskirts of Tilly-sur-Seulles and the following morning elements of the division controlled the centre of the village and its crossroads. However, the Panzer-Lehr Division made several counter-attacks and eventually forced the British out. A British counter attack, by the 50th Northumbrian, strayed into the Bocage and bogged down. On the 11th June, Army Group B planned to switch each of its panzer divisions engaged with British Second Army with infantry divisions, hoping to concentrate their tanks in the Carentan area to defeat US forces. This, fortunately, would never materialise as constant pressure from British forces forced Rommel to cancel this manoeuvre. Rommel would be subsequently ordered by Hitler to attack the Orne Bridgehead - where the British, and probably the Allied army in general, were strongest.

While XXX Corps and 7th Armoured Division attacked Tilly-sur-Seulles, the 51st Infantry Division and the 4th Armoured Brigade, were delayed until the 12th June by the 21st Panzer Division, whose counter attack on the 10th June hit the British 6th Airborne Division who were protecting the Orne bridgehead - which the 51st & 4th had to move through. Thanks to a British attack and naval gunnery, the Germans were repulsed - one German officer stated that his "battalion had been virtually wiped out" in the 12 hour offensive. Another German counter attack, this time at Ranville, was also repulsed. However, the leading elements of the 51st Highlanders would not be in position until the morning of the 11th, when they promptly attacked Bréville and Touffreville. Although the latter was quickly secured, the attempt on Bréville was a costly failure.

A day later, further German attacks were launched from Bréville on the Orne bridgehead which resulted in heavy casualties on both but eventually the German force was defeated. The situation was now fairly dire for the British; on the 12th June the Germans still held Bréville and were using it as a staging post. The decision to capture it was taken, and by midnight on the 12th the Parachute Regiment had captured the village - at a cost, out of the 160 men involved in the initial assault, 141 were killed or wounded.

Although the threat from Bréville was neutralised, 51st Highland was still facing stubborn resistance in their push south from the 21st Panzer Division. Unable to make any progress, the offensive east of Caen was called off on the 13th June. By the end of the operation, the British had sustained substantial casualties and although the Germans also lost suffered considerable losses of their own.
In the American sector, the Americans were also on the offensive, and were fortunate enough to force open a rare gap in the German lines and began to advance into it. This put the British and the Americans in a dangerous situation, the Americans were at significant risk of now being encircled by the Panzer-Lehr Division, and the British now had to prevent this and force the Germans back. In a hastily organised offensive which recycled elements of Perch, the British diverted the 7th Armoured Division and ordered it to flank the Panzer-Lehr.

Caumont & the British Advance

Quote:
The Allies continued their offensive in both the American and the British sectors without letup; however, they had failed to take advantage of the so-called "Caumont Gap". - S. Mitcham Jr


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12th June

Although the attempt to envelop Caen had been repulsed by stuff German resistance, British and American actions had generated an interesting situation on the right flank of British XXX Corps, they had forced open a 'gap' between the British Second and First US armies.

Allied operations, including Perch, had destroyed 5 German battlegroups and the entire reserves of LXXXIV Corps and the Caumont area was held only by remnants of the 352nd Infantry Division which had been in constant action since 6th June, where it contested Omaha Beach, and had received little in the way of replacements and their flank had been collapsed by the 1st and 2nd US Infantry Divisions, the 352nd was withdrawn to Saint-Lô on the 10th June, and this created a 7.5-mile gap in the German lines.

This 'gap' was held only the 17th SS Panzergrenadier Division's reconnaissance battalion, aware of the danger this posed, German command planned to deploy 2nd Panzer Division to Caumont but division was scattered between Amiens and Alençon - it would not arrive in strength for at least three days. Ultimately, the defence of the gap fell to the highly competent General Hans Freiherr von Funck, who rushed XLVII Panzer Corps' reconnaissance battalion to Caumont, he would hold the line for the rest of the campaign. Sepp Dietrich, I SS-Panzer Corps commander, in a move which was simultaneous with Funck, pushed his only reserve battalion, Schwere SS-Panzer-Abteilung 101, behind the other units in the corps in order to cover the left flank.

Already a formidable force, the battalion was enhanced by the inclusion of some of the German Army's best tank commanders. The battalion's 2nd company was commanded by the legendary Michael Wittmann and had 5 operational Tiger tanks, it was this unit which positioned themselves on Villers-Bocage ridge on the 12th June.

On the same day, General Dempsey met with Lieutenant-General Gerard Bucknall, commander of XXX Corps, and Major-General George Erskine, commander of the 7th Armoured Division. The 7th was ordered to disengage from Tilly-sur-Seulles and move to Villers-Bocage in order to best exploit the gap in the German lines and facilitate an advance around the left flank and into the rear of the Panzer-Lehr Division. If this could be achieved, the British hoped that the sudden appearance of a divisions worth of tanks on the high ground behind the Panzer-Lehr division could entice them to withdraw, surrender, or alternatively, be encircled and destroyed. This risky offensive would be obscured by a push from the 50th Northumbrians into Tilly-sur-Seulles and the American’s would also advance at the same time - US 1st Infantry Division tasked with capturing Caumont itself.

However, in practice, 7th Armoured Division was slow to move and actually spent the morning of the 12th June in Tilly-sur-Seulles - it was not until midday that Erskine appeared to show any sense of urgency, waiting until then to order Brigadier 'Loony' Hinde, commander of the 22nd Armoured Brigade, to move through the Caumont Gap. The 7th's armoured reconnaissance regiment, the 8th King's Royal Irish Hussars, began to reconnoitre the route ahead of them and by 4pm on the 12th the entire division had set off. The armoured and recce elements were joined by the 7th's indigenous infantry formation, 131st Infantry Brigade. By 8pm, 7th Armoured had completed the first stage of its advance, and was approaching the town of Livry. Despite the fact that the latter half of the divisions 12 mile journey was behind German lines, the advance was completely unopposed. However, north of Livry, 8th Hussars came under fire and the lead tank, and at least one other was knocked out by a concealed gun. Throughout the next two hours, the British moved forwards infantry and supporting tanks to clear the position with no further loss and continued their advance. The 7th would not stop until darkness fell. In spite of delays, it had appeared that the British had done it.

The Battle of Villers-Bocage

Quote:
7th Armoured Division should have succeeded. My feeling that Bucknall and Erskine would have to go started with that failure ... the whole handling of that battle was a disgrace. Their decision to withdraw [from Villers-Bocage] was done by the corps commander and Erskine." - General Sir Miles Dempsey


The Battle of Villers-Bocage was an indecisive, yet costly, battle which took place on the 13th June 1944 between the 22nd Armoured Brigade of the 7th Armoured Division, and a pair of ad-hoc German battle-groups and elements of the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion. The British force consisted of a mixed force of some 60 tanks, accompanied by infantry and artillery, whilst the German force had between 30 and 40 tanks, including a small number of Tiger I tanks.

The battle is largely remembered for the ambush of the 22nd Armoured Brigade by Tiger Ace Michael Wittmann, and in popular accounts Wittmann single handily destroyed a formation as large as a division. Whilst Wittmann's ambush has excited imaginations for decades, it has risen to the point where it dominates the battle and is frequently exaggerated. However valiant and successful Wittmann's moves were, it is worth remembering that his tank did not operate alone, and that it was not the sole event of the long and quick pace battle, and that Wittmann in this engagement was responsible for the loss of the first Tigers in Normandy. German losses were equally severe, and unlike the British, unaffordable. Nevertheless, British conduct of the Battle of Villers-Bocage has been controversial, it is said to be the point where the British halted their fluid operations to quickly seize ground, and dug in for a long, protracted, attritional battle for Caen. Although the battle was indecisive, historians tend to view the operation as a British failure, and correctly so. The conduct of the commanders and senior commanders involved and their believed lack of conviction was called into question and led to a shakeup of British command, with many officers being sacked.

The battle came about from a bold move undertaken by the British in an attempt to improve their position. Operation Perch had failed to capture Caen, but together with an assault by the 1st US Infantry Division the German 352nd Infantry Division had been forced back and there was an opportunity to flank the Panzer-Lehr Division. In reaction to, or anticipating an advance into the Caumont Gap, I SS-Panzer Korps commander Obergruppenführer Sepp Dietrich had moved his last reserve, schwere SS-Panzer Abteilung 101, to behind both the Panzer-Lehr and 12th SS-Panzer divisions and ended up in the Villers-Bocage area. SS-Panzer Abteilung 101 had only just arrived in Normandy following a 5 day drive from Beauvais. According to Max Hastings, the battalion originally had 45 Tiger I tanks, but when they arrived some 5 1/2 miles north-east of Villers-Bocage they only had 17 left. The 1st Company remained there, whilst the 2nd Company moved south of Point 213, and the 3rd had remained far back near Falaise with their last serviceable tank.

The 22nd Armoured Brigade, under command of Brigadier "Loony" Hinde, arrived at the village of Villers-Bocage early on the 13th June. They had not encountered any serious opposition on their journey, taking Livry without a fight and the advance continued at 05:30. There were a number of jubilant French civilians in the area, who (in good faith) fed erroneous information to the British and, according to George Forty, undermined combat readiness. A German hospital at Château de Villers-Bocage was abandoned at dawn on 13 June and only a few German troops remained in the area - both a Sd.Kfz. 231 armoured car and a Kübelwagen were seen to be observing the advance but were chased away. First contact was made by the two Hussar regiments on the flanks, which reported the presence of heavy armoured cars and, according to Lieutenant Charles Pearce, of the 4th Sharpshooters, self-propelled guns heading towards Villers-Bocage.

22nd Armoured Brigade, spearheaded by the Sharpshooters, entered the area from the east heading along the Caen Road toward Point 213. According to Carlo D'Este, a prominent American historian, the British knew that to control the village they had to push through the village and occupy the ridge behind it. This was left to the 4th County of London Yeomanry (Sharpshooters) and a company of the 1st Rifle Brigade. The 1/7th Queen's Royal Regiment (West Surrey) were to follow up this move and occupy the village itself whilst the 5th Royal Tank Regiment (5th RTR) with a company of the Rifle Brigade were tasked with seizing the high ground situated to the south-west of Villers-Bocage. According to George Forty, the 260th Anti-tank Battery of the Norfolk Yeomanry was to cover the gap between the 4th Sharpshooters and 5th RTR with their 17pdr SP Achilles tank destroyers and the entire operation would be covered by 5th Regiment Royal Horse Artillery. The flanks and rear were held by two Hussar regiments, 131st Infantry Brigade, 1st Royal Tank Regiment, and the 1/5th and 1/6th Queen's.

Villers-Bocage was soon occupied and the Sharpshooters continued to Point 213. Meanwhile British tanks went hull down, establishing a perimeter and on the road the personnel carriers of the Rifle Brigade pulled over allow reinforcements for Point 213 to pass. The infantry dismounted but noted that they could not see more than 250 yards each side of the road. According to George Forty, concerns began to feed back to Hinde regarding the precariousness of the British position - notably from Lieutenant-Colonel Arthur, Viscount Cranley, Commander 4th Sharpshooters. Hinde reassured him and then left Villers-Bocage for his headquarters.

The advance had been a success, even Witmann was surprised, Forty claiming that he stated:

Quote:
"I had no time to assemble my company; instead I had to act quickly, as I had to assume that the enemy had already spotted me and would destroy me where I stood. I set off with one tank and passed the order to the others not to retreat a single step but to hold their ground."


Just after 9:00 that morning, 22nd Armoured Brigade was ambushed by Tiger I tanks of the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion and in as little as 15 minutes, a number of tanks, anti-tank guns and transport vehicles were knocked out - a number famously by the hand of SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann.

Wittmann was spotted at about 09:00 by Sergeant O'Connor of the Rifle Brigade, who at the time was moving towards Point 213 in his half-track. According to Forty, O'Conner broke radio silence and provided the only warning of the attack. The Tiger emerged and moved onto the road, knocking out a Cromwell - the rearmost tank of the column. A Sherman Firefly was also hit and caught fire, blocking the road. The rest of the German 2nd Company attacked Point 213 and destroyed 3 more tanks. Wittmann continued to the village, many of the Rifle Brigade's vehicles were destroyed but casualties were light. At least 1 Tiger had run out of fuel but Wittmann destroyed 3 M5 Stuart light tanks from the 4th Sharpshooters.

Image
1st Rifle Brigade's transport column, w/6Pdr anti-tank gun.

In the village itself, the tanks of the Sharpshooters Regimental HQ were unable to escape, but they were able to hit Wittmann's Tiger twice. However, another British tank was lost. Lieutenant Charles Pearce, in his scout car, was able to move and warn the rest of the Reconnaissance Troop and B Squadron to the West. Wittmann knocked out another 2 tanks and he also destroyed two artillery observation tanks, the Intelligence Officer's scout car and the Medical Officer's half-track.

Forty writes that then Wittmann was engaged by a Sherman Firefly and forced to withdraw, in his haste to escape, Wittmann inadvertently collapsed a house which housed a German sniper. Robert Moore suggests that he forced Wittmann to retreat, when a shot from his tank dented the driver visor of the Tiger. Wittmann's retreat brought him close to a Cromwell commanded by Dyas who, having been bypassed by Witmann in the hasty advance, was stalking the Tiger. Dyas fired twice at the Tiger’s thin rear armour at point-blank range, but by some unfortunate luck, his had no effect and Wittmann destroyed the tank. Wittmann's tank was eventually disabled at the Tilly-sur-Seulles road junction by a 6Pdr anti-tank gun - a XXX Corps radio report logged 09:45 claims and the Rifle Brigade regimental history claim that a Tiger was knocked out by an anti-tank gun to the east of the town commanded by Sergeant Bray, who also destroyed to two half-tracks and an armoured car but Wittmann himself stated that his tank was disabled by an anti-tank gun firing from the town centre.

Further up the road, on Point 213, a German unit under command of Major Werncke, Panzer-Lehr Division, performed a reconnaissance of Point 213 on foot later in the morning. The patrol found a column of unoccupied Cromwell tanks (the crews were studying a map with an officer at the front of the column). Major Werncke stole one and drove away before the British could react. In the aftermath of the earlier ambush on A Squadron, Sharpshooters, they had nine tanks operational, 2 of which were Sherman Fireflies, a rifle section, and a number of officers.

In a period of 15 minutes or less, the 2nd Company had destroyed 13–14 tanks, two anti-tank guns and 13–15 transport vehicles and Wittmann and his crew escaped successfully.

At 10:00, following the escape of some 30 British prisoners, the British (1/7th Queen's) took up defensive positions in Villers-Bocage, capturing a German advance party from 2nd Panzer Division. A relief force was prepared to get to the 4th Sharpshooters on the ridge, however instead it was suggested that the trapped unit pull out as their position on Point 213 was becoming untenable. Two hours later, a Sharpshooters Cromwell tried to break out back to Villers-Bocage, however it was knocked out. The trees along the road were shelled by German artillery, sending splinters everywhere, preventing escape and removing cover, the troops on the ridge soon surrendered. German soldiers were quick to arrive and captured the 30 or so remaining men from the Sharpshooters, the Rifle Brigade, and the Royal Horse Artillery, but not quick enough as the British sabotaged their armour- again, a number of British evaded capture.

Image
Destroyed British tanks on Point 213 after German forces arrived.

Hauptmann Helmut Ritgen was ordered to block the northern exits of Villers-Bocage with 15 Panzer IV tanks, most from 6th Company, 2nd Battalion Panzer-Lehr, Regiment 130. Ritgen rendezvoused with Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein, commanding officer Panzer-Lehr Division and then moved into Villers-Bocage from the south. Ritgen lost 3 tanks in this move, and the rest of the force withdrew. In the village itself, 4 companies from the 1/7th Queen's fought in the village, securing the railway station and the east side in house-to-house fighting which destroyed two German tanks. However, 1/7th Queen's infantry companies became too scattered and disorganised and had to withdraw to regroup. B company became the reserve, A Company returned to the station, and C and D companies retook the east of the village. The battalion's anti-tank guns were deployed along the length of the front line and an ambush, involving a Sherman Firefly, Cromwells, a 6Pdr, and numerous PIATS from the 4th Sharpshooters and the 1/7th Queens was set up in the town centre - awaiting the advance of 4 German tanks seen moving towards the main street. To the west, 1/5th Queen's, located as far back as Livry, knocked out a German tank and blunted a counter offensive there.

At 13:00, the Panzer-Lehr Division advanced tanks into Villers-Bocage and lost 2 more Panzer IVs. However, the anti-tank gun responsible was destroyed by Tigers which moved up specifically to find it. The German's sought to take the centre of the village by advancing along both the main road and along the parallel road further to the south. According to Forty and other historians, the advancing Tigers triggered the British ambush, 1 was destroyed immediately by a 6Pdr, this forced the remaining 3 Tigers to move into the back streets to flank the British position but 1 was destroyed by another anti-tank gun, and the other 2 were knocked out by PIATs.

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Knocked out German tanks on the main street of Villers-Bocage. Historian Henri Marie claims that the Tiger in the foreground was finished off by British infantry using grenades; none of the crew survived the attack. Note this photo was taken in the aftermath of an airstrike by RAF Typhoon's, but the tanks were already knocked out.

A fifth Tiger stopped ahead of the ambush site, waiting for the British to move. According to Forty this tank was spotted by the Firefly crew through the windows of a corner building, and it fired through the windows, hitting the Tiger. The Tiger fled and raced past a side street, allowing a Cromwell to move onto the main street behind the Tiger and destroy it. The Firefly also destroyed a Panzer IV. Meanwhile, outside Villers-Bocage, other elements of 7th Armoured Division were attacked from both the north and south, they repulsed each attack. Back in Villers-Bocage, A company 1/7th Queens was attacked by a German attack supported by mortars and artillery, and a platoon was cut off and captured. The Germans pushed through the whole battalion to get into the village. Two grenadier battalions from the 2nd Panzer Division also attacked from the south, but were engaged by B Squadron 4th Sharpshooters and sustained heavy casualties, although several British mortars and a Universal Carrier were destroyed. However, by 18:00 the Queen's battalion headquarters was threatened and Hinde therefore decided to withdraw the 22nd Armoured Brigade before darkness fell. German forces sustained heavy casualties attempting to interrupt the withdrawal.

The end of Operation Perch

The Island

With the withdrawal from Villers-Bocage completed, on 14 June the 22nd Armoured Brigade and its assets formed a "brigade box" for all-round defence near Hill 174. The brigade’s exact position is debated, but the position was allegedly as small as 2km square. The battle fought there, known as the Battle of the Island, the Battle of the Island Position, the Battle of the Brigade Box, or the Battle of Amayé-sur-Seulles, was fierce. The Panzer-Lehr Division had manoeuvred to launch a counter attack on the elements of the 7th Armoured Division located in the box with the support of 1st Company, schwere SS-Panzer Battalion 101 and the 2nd Panzer Division's reconnaissance battalion as well as a number of small infantry units.

German infantry were spotted advancing towards the Brigade Box and bombarded by artillery early on the 14th June. Although this attack was repulsed, a larger infantry attack advanced so close that British artillery could not risk firing. Desperate hand to hand fighting broke out, in which a British platoon was overrun. The German infantry were eventually repulsed by British tanks and supporting infantry. Unable to break into the box, the Germans resorted to harassing fire, sniping, mortar bombardments and artillery bombardment. After a daylong bombardment, the Germans attacked with both tanks and infantry at around 19:00 from both the north and the south, and although the assault did break into the box and closed in on the brigade HQ, it was forced back by 22:30.

By now the 7th Armoured Division's commanders were confident that the position was secure, but they were disappointed in the failure of the 50th Northumbrian Division to break through the Panzer-Lehr Division and reach the 7th Armoured Division - even after successful operations by both units. The 7th therefore ordered the brigade group to retire. This was done to prevent them being cut off and to straighten the front line. The move, known as Operation Aniseed, began at midnight and was covered by decoy raids by RAF Bomber Command on Aunay-sur-Odon and Evrecy which damaged 3 Tigers, destroyed 1, and caused 29 German casualties. Because of these raids and harassing fire from British Artillery falling on both the northern and southern flanks of the brigade, the German's could do little to intervene.

By the end of the withdrawal from the Island, German forces had sustained nearly 800 casualties and had lost between 8 and 20 tanks, many of them were Tigers whilst British casualties were light - losing only 3 tanks and a small number of men.

Verrières & Lingèvres

Montgomery abandoned the pincer attack on Caen on the 14th June, stating that his forces now lacked "sufficient strength to act offensively on both flanks". Whilst I Corps rested, XXX Corps was ordered to continue attacking. According to Terry Copp, 50th (Northumbrian) Division, supported by the RAF and the entirely of the divisions artillery, attacked la Senaudière, la Belle Epine, Lingèvres and Verrières and according to Forty, should the attack have succeeded the capture of Hottot-les-Bagues was to be achieved. A large reconnaissance mission was conducted on the evening of the 13th June, which destroyed 1 German tank and inflicted considerable casualties on the Panzer-Lehr Division.

The British attack began at 10:15am on the 14th June. The 151st (Durham) Infantry Brigade advanced with support from the tanks of the 4th/7th Royal Dragoon Guards. The Germans did not open fire until the British were 150 yards away and the ensuing battle lasted until the 6th Durham Light Infantry battalion captured the German positions 5 hours later. Verrières was taken without a fight, but the British were unable to advance any further. According to Forty, Lingèvres was taken by 13:30, after the 9th Durham Light Infantry battalion and their reserve companies broke through the German machine guns. The battalion moved their anti-tank guns into the village, but these were mostly destroyed by the first German counter attack.

The counter attack on Lingèvres is well described by George Forty, a pair of Panther tanks was spotted moving towards Lingèvres by Sergeant Wilfred Harris (a Sherman Firefly commander) and he engaged the German tanks at a range of 400 yards. The first tank was destroyed, the second was disabled and later destroyed by a tank-hunting party led by Major John Mogg (the acting battalion commander) whilst Harris relocated his Firefly. Another Panther was forced back by another tank hunting party. In another engagement a third Panther was knocked out by a British Sherman, at the cost of a Sherman. A group of three more Panthers advanced towards the village, and were all knocked out by Harris' Firefly. At the end of the day, 9 German tanks had been destroyed but the German counter attack, although unsuccessful, prevented any further British gains. However, the British were able to move the 231st Infantry Brigade up to link up and support the Durham Light Infantry, they had achieved the bulk of their objectives, and had carried out what was described as best attack by the battalion during the campaign. They sustained 353 casualties.

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Two of the five Panther tanks knocked out by Sergeant Wilfred "Spit" Harris and his crew


Aftermath/Legacy of Villers-Bocage

Quote:
German achievement on 13/14 June had been that, while heavily outnumbered in the sector as a whole, they successfully kept the British everywhere feeling insecure and off-balance, while concentrating sufficient forces to dominate the decisive points. The British, in their turn, failed to bring sufficient forces to bear on these." - Max Hastings


The village of Villers-Bocage was eventually captured on the 4th August 1944 by a patrol of the 1st Battalion Dorset Regiment, 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division. The village was in ruins, as it had been the target of two raids by RAF strategic bombers.

Soon after the battle, 100 men, including senior commanders such as Bucknall (XXX Corps), Erskine (7th Armoured Division) and Hinde (22nd Armoured Brigade) were sacked or reassigned. This is believed to be a direct consequence of Villers-Bocage. However, Daniel Taylor, suggests that Villers-Bocage simply provided a convenient excuse for the sackings, which took place to "demonstrate that the army command was doing something to counteract the poor public opinion of the conduct of the campaign". Delaforce blames Erskine for the failure, noting the lack of emphasis placed on intelligence and reconnaissance. Max Hastings reasons that the famed superiority of the Tiger played a role, but that bad decisions made by the British acted as a force multiplier. Buckley denies that technological differences had any impact on the battle, and blames only the British for the battles outcome.

However it is worth noting that the British were not defeated and suffered no real setback beyond the initial engagement. The British responded quickly, and repulsed several German counterattacks, destroying several Tiger and Panzer IV tanks before withdrawing. The German's were unable to press home the initial advantage, and it is debatable whether the German counterattack ever needed to occur considering the loss of so many valuable tanks, and it is suggested that had Wittmann waited and better coordinated then the attack could have been even more devastating. However, the Germans acted in haste and without intelligence with units starting in poor positions. Meyer suggested that the German attack was "obviously inexpedient".

Both sides exploited the battle for propaganda purposes, the British focused on the stubborn and genuinely expert defence as well as the bravery of British soldiers who escaped capture. Naturally, the German's focused on Wittmann, and rightly so, D'Este wrote that Wittmann's attack was "one of the most amazing engagements in the history of armoured warfare", whilst Max Hastings called it "one of the most devastating single-handed actions of the war" whilst both John Buckley and Stephen Badsey consider the event to be a foolhardy sideshow to the main battle, and over written - albeit remarkable. German command grossly exaggerated the exploit and were so convincing in their efforts they tricked even the British into believing the magnitude of the operations failings and losses were much more severe than in actuality. According to Taylor, Wittmann recorded a radio message describing the battle and the later counter-attacks, claiming the destruction of 2 regiments. Doctored photographs were produced for the German armed forces magazine, Signal, which were convincing enough give credence to their claims. Ultimately, this was an illusion of smoke and mirrors, as according to Marie, an instructor at the German Bundeswehr tank school claimed that as the Waffen-SS did not have an "experienced tank arm" when compared to the regular army they could not match the Wehrmacht's success, the SS therefore attempted to manufacture a hero.

Casualties for the battle are difficult to ascertain, but it is estimated that the British 22nd Armoured Brigade group suffered around 217 men killed, wounded and missing - with a number of those taken prisoner at Point 213. Max Hastings wrote that A Company, Rifle Brigade, lost 80 men - other historians say that of these, 9 were killed. Carlo D'Este claimed the 4th Sharpshooters lost 85 men and the figure for those killed is between 4 and 12. Patrick Delaforce claims that 1/7th Queen's suffered 44 casualties, perhaps 7 of these were killed. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission records 2 men killed from 5th RHA, 1 each for 1st RTR and 5th RTR, and 4 from the 8th Hussars. Despite a large number of tanks and other vehicles being destroyed, a number of crews were able to escape. The figure of 217 includes 5 riflemen who were killed following their capture (allegedly, they dived for cover from incoming artillery and the guards thought they were escaping).

The British probably lost between 23, and 27 tanks with at least half of these being lost on Point 213. Ellis, the British Official Historian gave 25 tank losses and D'Este and Delaforce claim 27 tanks lost, of these 20 were Cromwells. Taylor claims that 16 Cromwells, 4 Firefires, and 3 Stuarts were lost. Reynolds and Marie count 30 tanks lost. Some 11 to 14 half-tracks were also lost, and up to 14 Universal Carriers. Reynolds claimed that there were 16 Universal Carriers lost and Marie counted 11 half-tracks and 6 Carriers. 3 scout cars, 9 Daimler armoured cars and 2 anti-tank guns were also lost during the battle.

German losses are even harder to ascertain because the Panzer-Lehr Division and 2nd Panzer Division were engaged in multiple places on that day and did not record losses in separate actions. The only unit engaged exclusively at Villers-Bocage was the 101st SS Heavy Panzer Battalion and Taylor claims that they lost 9 killed and 10 wounded from the 1st Company and 1 killed and 3 wounded in the 2nd Company. Tank losses are considered to be between 8 and 15, probably closer to 15, and at least 6 of these tanks lost were valuable Tigers. The Germans also lost a small number of light vehicles and half-tracks. This is a serious loss, as earlier historians such as Wilmot claim that there were only 36 Tiger tanks in the entirely of Normandy - although it is possible that the Germans were able to recover some of their lost tanks.

Sadly, at least 9 French civilians died in the battle, with 3 of the deaths alleged war crimes. Additionally, German forces reoccupied the town and set fire too many buildings in a hunt for wounded or escaped British soldiers. More civilian casualties were inflicted on the night of the 14th June, when 337 RAF bombers dropped 1,700 tons of high explosives on the town of Évrecy and on targets around Villers-Bocage, they destroyed an additional Tiger and damaged 3 more. On the 30th June, 226 bombers dropped 1,100 tonnes of bombs on Villers-Bocage in support of Operation Epsom - this time no Germans were present in the village.

Image
Villers-Bocage, 30th June 1944

Aftermath of Operation Perch:

Image
Dempsey (right) with Bernard Montgomery (centre), and Omar Bradley (left), 10 June 1944.

In no uncertain terms, Operation Perch was a big disappointment for many, especially for Dempsey, who according to Wilmot claimed that the time to seize Caen and increase XXX Corps bridgehead with a snap or airborne operation had passed, the units involved in Perch were unable to generate a the desired result and the battle for Caen would become drawn out and arduous. The logical and manpower situation had really begun to affect the British in Normandy, and in the period immediate after Operation Perch they were forced to wait before they could launch another assault. Naturally, although drawing out the capture strained allied relations and in the short term was difficult for the British, it ultimately secured the victory in Normandy as the attrition suffered by German forces meant that they were in no position to settle down for a long battle.

It is hard to distinguish casualties for Operation Perch alone, but by the end of June 1944 the German Panzer-Lehr Division lost some 3,000 men, with some 400 killed and 675 missing. They also lost 51 tanks (24 being Panzer IVs and 23 Panthers). They also lost 82 halftracks and nearly 300 other vehicles. By June 16th, 12th SS-Panzer Division reported just over 1,400 casualties with 405 killed and 165 missing. By the end of June they had lost 41 tanks, 15 of them Panthers. In a similar timeframe, 21st Panzer Division suffered 1,864 casualties and some 27 of its 112 tanks. Schwere SS-Panzer Abteiling 101 suffered 27 casualties, losing 9 tanks and 21 damaged by June 16th.

British losses were not as heavy; the 7th Armoured Division suffered 1,149 casualties by the end of June and had also lost 38 tanks during Operation Perch itself. The 50th (Northumbrian) Infantry Division had some 4,500 casualties by the end of June however it has to be noted that this formation was twice as large as a normal infantry division in the British Army.

Dempsey felt that the 7th Armoured Division should indeed have succeeded and described the outcome of Villers-Bocage as a disgrace, blaming Erksine. This put the commands of Bucknall and Erskine on the line and they would soon be sacked. Although perhaps harsh, historians largely agree to some capacity and Bucknall did indeed waste an opportunity to quickly capture Caen. D'Este thinks that Dempsey was "excessively harsh" to his subordinates regarding the battle, although many historians agree that Bucknall threw away the chance swiftly to capture Caen. Montgomery, until that time, had been a patron of Bucknall but even he agreed, according to Forty, that Bucknall "could not manage a Corps once the battle became mobile". Buckley wrote that Bucknall was unprepared and unable to support the attack once problems developed, and he also argues that Erskine was ill-suited.

Meyer blamed the 50th Northumbrian Division, its armoured brigade, and the 51st Highland Infantry Division. Many historians suggest that not enough infantry was committed to the offensive, which could be described as armour heavy. This problem could have been easily rectified, according to Reynolds, as a pair of infantry battalions and most of the 1st Rifle Brigade were available on the 13th June. Additionally, Bucknall failed to effectively concentrate his force, and three of his infantry brigades were not used efficiently. D'Este claims similar, although be notes Bucknall's argument that some of his units had little or no combat experience - "49 [Division] ... [had] no recent battle experience and it was important to launch them nicely into their first fighting in a properly coordinated battle, and not bundle them helter-skelter into hot armoured scrapping like that around V[illers]-B[ocage] and Amaye."

John Buckley claims that the responsibility for the failure of Operation Perch lies with command, whilst Terry Copp argues Dempsey continued to underestimate German defences. There are also claims Second Army command could not handle its subordinate units effectively and failed to outline key tasks and intentions and tolerated little flexibility in the implementation of their orders.

However, Operation Perch did generate numerous positives; the fact the German army was forced to commit some of their most powerful armoured formations would prove to be hugely beneficial to the British as the Germans were forced to cede the initiative to the Allies and found themselves unable to effectively retaliate. Perch was also intended to trick the Germans into thinking that the British were about to attempt a mass breakout - an attribute shared by the other major British armoured thrust of the campaign, Operation Goodwood. By using XXX Corps to push south east of Caen and generate threat, the actual intention to breakout using American forces to the West would be obscured. Wilmot claims the operation was a success, strategically, because as it forced Rommel to commit his armour earlier than he'd like, in an area different to where he'd like, in a role and with aims he could not dictate. Once German tanks were committed in battle with the British, it was hard to completely disengage and reorganise and the tanks lost their flexibility.

Ultimately, because of the British, the Germans were unable to mount a counter offensive against the Americans.

Bibliography:

Buckley, John (2006) [2004]. British Armour in the Normandy Campaign 1944. London: Taylor & Francis.

Buckley, J. (2013). Monty's Men: The Brtish Army and the Liberation of Europe (2014 ed.). London: Yale University Press.

Copp, Terry (2004) [2003]. Fields of Fire: The Canadians in Normandy. Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

Cloudsley-Thompson, J. L. "Return to Villers-Bocage" The Sharpshooter Newsletter 2003

Delaforce, Patrick (2003) [1999]. Churchill's Desert Rats: From Normandy to Berlin with the 7th Armoured Division. Stroud: Sutton Publishing;

D'Este, Carlo (2004) [1983]. Decision in Normandy: The Real Story of Montgomery and the Allied Campaign. London: Penguin.

Forty, George (2004). Villers Bocage. Battle Zone Normandy. Stroud: Sutton Publishing.

Hart, Stephen Ashley (2007) [2000]. Colossal Cracks: Montgomery's 21st Army Group in Northwest Europe, 1944–45. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books.

Hastings, Max (1999) [1984]. Overlord: D-Day and the Battle for Normandy 1944. Pan Grand Strategy Series. London: Pan Books.

Marie, Henri (2004) [1993]. Villers-Bocage: Normandy 1944. Bayeux: Editions Heimdal; Bilingual edition.

Meyer, Hubert (2005) [1994]. The 12th SS: The History of the Hitler Youth Panzer Division I. Mechanicsburg: Stackpole Books

Moore, R "Villers-Bocage – Bob Moore writes" The Sharpshooter Newsletter 2003

Reynolds, Michael (2001) [1997]. Steel Inferno: I SS Panzer Corps in Normandy. Da Capo Press.

Wilmot, C.; C. D. McDevitt (1997) [1952]. The Struggle For Europe. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions



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 Post subject: Re: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Operation Perch
Unread postPosted: 26 Jul 2014, 18:07 
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Interesting article, thanks! I had no idea that Villers-Bocage was not that one sided at all.

When talking about the Battle of the Island, you mention that British artillery was unable to fire because of how close the German's got to the British positions.

How close is too close?



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 Post subject: Re: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Operation Perch
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Pretty damn close, but it depends on the gun. One of the advantages of the 25Pdr was that it's HE shell was weaker than other guns of similar calibre, so it could be fired close to or on top of friendly positions with a much reduced risk to friendlies.

In the modern military, danger close is fire within 600m for most things. 750m for 5in guns, 1000m for 5in +, and 2000m for rockets. Danger close in 1944 was probably considerably closer.



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 Post subject: Re: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Operation Perch
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The 25Pdr HE shell was lethal up to 50m, but only at a 10% ratio. It was only reliably lethal up to 25m, and routinely lethal up to 15m.

That said, the 25Pdr was a small gun, and the British had much larger guns in service. There were many guns and shells and some of those fired much larger shells, the 7.2in gun fired a 200lbs shell, however remember that in most circumstances, only 7-15% of the shells weight is HE.

Don't forget that there is a difference between HE, Frag, and other shells, as well as air burst and ground burst impacts as well as the differences in terrain weather etc etc. Then there is the design differences, the 4.5in gun fired a weaker shell than the US 105mm, but the British 4.5in gun was intended for counter-battery fire and relied on fragmentation rather than HE power.

Smaller artillery pieces like the 2 inch mortar had extremely high rates of fire but very short ranges and little explosive power, but they were perfect for supporting platoons and companies at 'danger close' ranges as the gun crew could often observe the target themselves and because of the limited explosive power. These assets act in more a direct fire-indirect fire role rather than true indirect firing heavy artillery located behind the lines.


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 Post subject: Re: D-Day @ 70 - Normandy Campaign, Operation Perch
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Interesting info GR, I think your point on the actual % of shell being explosive content and your point on the role of particular guns is interesting.



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