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The aftermath of the D-Day Invasion of Normandy, 6th June 1944
After the hell of the Invasion
The day after the landings saw both the Allies and German forces trying to consolidate their position and build up their troops. The Germans were attacked from the sea by gunfire from American and British battleships whilst the Allied bombers followed movements of German troops and bombed them where possible
There were several examples of German failure. A panzer division was en route to Caen to reinforce the town. The Germans hid in the side of the wood and covered the tanks with branches and leaves so that they would not be seen from the air. This movement had been spotted and bombers were sent into action. After the bombing raid over 130 vehicles were put of action and the "crack" unit had lost its ability to mount a counteroffensive against the Allies.
The German High Command then decided to send a motorised infantry division to the Invasion beaches. The column was attacked by Allied planes, leaving a wreckage of war all over the road. An hour later the Allies attacked the column again, destroying much of the machinery of warfare. After this second attack German Commanders called the attack off. Many of the soldiers were young and had never encountered such ferocious gunfire.
The Germans tried to utilise other forms of transport other than roads and sent two trains from St Nazaire towards the front. Allied bombers destroyed one train and so destroyed the railway track that the other train could not progress to the front.
The actions of the Allied bombers meant that there was reduced opposition against the Allied soldiers trying to break out and into France. The conception of a single force was illustrated when the Canadians who had been ravaged by a German Counter attack near Caen were helped by the British who had broken through and were ready to advance.
The 7th June 1944 saw the first town in France liberated. The town was Bayeaux and men of the Northumbrian Division walked in with little opposition as the Germans had already pulled out. They were welcomed by the french people, some so overwhelmed by what had happened that they stared at the liberators in wonder.
Caen, the largest city in the area still remained the Allied target. Between the Allies and the city lay the River Orme and a violent battle was developing on the river.The Germans were still attacking in waves on the 12th June, some days after the Invasion. It was then that the Airborne Commander, General Gale sent in a battalion of parachutists who although only 160 men captured the village of Breville. By the end of the action to capture Breville only 19 men were not dead or injured so they were limited to making sniper patrols in the near by woods.
On the eastern side of Caen was the the Airborne Division reinforced by the 51st Highland Division. They tried to attack but suffered many casualties and their attack was abandoned. On the western side of Caen the "crack" panzer division Lehr Division held the troops back from Caen, American forces had penetrated further north and whilst some went on to attack Cherbourg others moved south to Caen reinforced by the Desert Rats Armoured Division and the Northumbrian Infantry Division. These were now at the rear of the Panzer Division.
The first target of the battle was the village of Villers Bocage and fierce fighting began, but the German tanks were of a superior quality to the British Cromwells. After a day of hand to hand fighting and observing the wiping out of the British tanks, the Allies pulled out of the village under cover of darkness. Other attacks failed in other parts of the area as the enemy had crack units of tanks and used camouflage to hide their vehicles. For several days attacks and counter attacks continued throughout the countryside which were costly to both sides, both in men and machines. By the middle of June, the Allies had landed over half a million men ashore and the beaches and mulberry harbours were busy landing more men and equipment, but yet Caen was still in enemy hands.
The German defence of Caen
The German generals recognised that Caen was the key to the defence of France. They received an order from Hitler "Every man shall fight and die where he stands", retreat was not an openly voiced option.
The incentive for the Allies to capture Caen was high. There were bases on the coast which housed the "doodle bug" or "v1" missiles which were even now being fired on the southeast of England.
Most of the German armour - the Panzer divisions were stationed in the Caen sector. The divisions strength to attack was reduced because they could not get reinforcements and bombing attacks had killed many men and damaged vehicles.Hitler believed that the Invasion in Normandy was a bluff and that the main invasion would come through the Pas de Calais area. The Germans were lined up around Caen in three wide belts, one behind each other, waiting for Montgomery's troops.
It may have been June but the weather was far from balmy. On the 19th June the Normandy coast was struck by the worst summer gale for fifty years. By the end of the storm 800 vessels had been driven ashore and dozens of vessels sunk at sea. In a three day storm the weather had inflicted more damage on the Allies than the German guns and bombs had managed in two weeks.With the delay in receipt of supplies the build up of forces was slowed down and the poor weather meant that there was no air support as planes could not take off. The Germans missed an opportunity to attack during the bad weather and the Allies recovered, attacking and gaining the port of Cherbourg.
On 26th June 1944 Montgomery launched the first major British offensive called Epsom after the racecourse. The objective of operation Epsom was the capture of Caen which the Allies intended to do by crossing the Rivers Odon and Orne to the west thus attacking the Germans from the rear, cutting them off from supplies. The soldiers were 60,000 men, straight from training in the UK who had spent the days of the storm at sea.
After an artillery barrage at the German positions the infantry raced through the cornfields in attack. Many men who were injured or dead lay unseen in the tall grass of the fields. To try to keep track of bodies a soldier would affix a bayonet to their comrades rifle and hand his helmet on top; this would alert the stretcher bearers to a casualty. By the second day of the battle the Scottish Division had crossed the River Odon being met on the far side by devastating enemy fire from snipers. The British solution to these snipers was to burn the woodlands- men ran out burning and screaming and dead bodies were found when the burning stopped. By the end of four days they had made it to Hill 112 where they were stopped.
Corporal Norman Habetin remembered "Operation Epsom.....wasn't very pleasant......we had some very very rude awakenings"- extracted from "Forgotten Voices" by Max Arthur.
Hill 112 had a panoramic view of the area, and was under German control. British troops seized the bottom of the hill and aided by aircraft and artillery attacked all day. The enemy counter attacked and there were intense periods of shelling and mortar fire from the Germans. The slopes of Hill 112 became an inferno with bombs and shells from both sides. Under cover of the night the British troops; what was left of them, withdrew.The outcome of the attack was an important small gain to the Allies who had driven a wedge into German positions making them cede a little ground.
Corporal Robert Nurse of 2nd Fife and Yeoman Infantry recalls" And then Hill 112 oh God, I didn't like that place"
THE FINAL ATTACK ON CAEN
The final offensive to capture Caen took place on 7th July 1944 when heavy bombers batteredthe town with the ground troops attacking the next morning. The populace of the town sheltered in the churches and stone quarrieson the edge of the town whilst the troops fought "hand to hand" through the ruins of the city. The city itself was eventually taken at the cost of many lives from both sides but the Germans still remained on the High Ground to the south of the city.
The Allies decided that the only way to weaken German resistance in the area was to create a diversion. Thus they made another try at Hill 112. The battle continued for some weeks but it did the job, to draw troops away from the area, east and south of Caen to allow the Goodwood offensive to take place.