Operation Express

This was a British offensive to the west of the Orne river in the Normandy lodgement area of ‘Overlord’ by Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army within the context of the 2nd Battle of the Odon River (22/23 July 1944).

After 'Windsor' on 4/5 July, the capture of the western outskirts of Caen in 'Charnwood' on 8/9 July and 'Jupiter' in 10/11 July, the defence of the Norman village of Maltot had been taken over by Generalleutnant Friedrich-August Schack’s 272nd Division on 22 July from SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision 'Frundsberg' of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Willi Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps within General Leo Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzergruppe 'West', and was then moved into reserve around St Martin in preparation for a counterattack.

The British planned to attack Maltot from the north-east with the Orne river on its left flank. During 'Jupiter' the attack had been delivered across open ground, to the south from Château Fontaine and Éterville, and could been seen easily by the Germans defenders on Hill 112. 'Express' was to begin from Louvigny, and was to use the 5/Wiltshire Regiment of Brigadier G. H. L. Mole’s 129th Brigade of Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division and B Squadron of the 9/Royal Tank Regiment of Brigadier G. S. Knight’s 31st Army Tank Brigade to capture the village and orchards to the north of the road from Louvigny, and the 4/Wiltshire with A Squadron of the 9/RTR to attack the woods, orchards and a spur to the south-east of Maltot. The 129th Brigade’s 4/Somerset Light Infantry was kept in reserve for the exploitation of any success.

(At the same time, on the eastern bank of the Orne river, Brigadier W. J. Megill’s Canadian 5th Brigade of Major General C. Foulkes’s Canadian 2nd Division raided Etavaux with two companies, which attacked along the railway close to the river bank. The infantry advanced behind a creeping barrage and support was provided by a troop of tanks from the Sherbrooke Fusiliers on higher ground. Both companies advanced slowly against the fire of a number of machine gun posts, which could not be seen by the tanks. Several Canadian soldiers rushed German posts and enabled the advance to continue and reached the village, where they fought with the German garrison until the British barrage was due and then retired. After Maltot had been taken, the Canadians returned to occupy the village and took prisoner about 100 men of the 272nd Division, for a loss of 108 casualties during the undertaking.)

The British attack on Maltot attack began at 17.30. On the right-hand side of the road the 5/Wiltshire advanced behind a smoke screen and an artillery barrage. The German defence was taken by tactical surprise and was initially stunned by the artillery bombardment. As the British moved through the village, however, some of the defenders recovered and hand-to-hand fighting took place. Panzergrenadiers of the 10th SS Panzerdivision and PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks of SS-Sturmbannführer Hans Weiss’s 102nd schwere SS-Panzerabteilung began a counterattack as Maltot was entered, and knocked out several Churchill infantry tanks of B Squadron.

As this was happening, a British forward air controller saw the German tanks and called in rocket-firing Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers, whose low-level attacks forced the Tiger tanks back to Hill 112 even as the Panzergrenadiers reinforced the infantry in the village.

On the other side of the Louvigny road, the 4/Wiltshire and A Squadron advanced through woods and farms to their final objective in the area to the south of the village. The infantry led the way, with two sections in front of each tank, with the squadron commander on foot with the infantry commanders.

When it was seen that the 4/Wiltshire had been delayed by the German defence of Lieu de France farm, lying at the eastern end of Maltot, Churchill gun and Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks were summoned to bombard the defenders, and the position was then overrun. As the advance moved into the woods, small parties of British and German infantry stalked each other through trees, small quarries and a number of trenches, but the German defenders were beaten in about two hours. The mopping-up process then began, but some German troops were still holding out as darkness fell. Most of the surviving defenders then pulled back to Château Maltot on the far side of the road, where they were bypassed and cut off.

As the 4/Wiltshire moved toward the Rau de Maltot, a small stream, it was halted by fire from the château. Bombardment by the Churchill tanks had no effect except to prompt a German medical officer to emerge and request a truce, which was offered provided that all the German troops in the château surrender. The Germans refused to entertain this idea, and at dusk the British attacked again and broke into the ground floor but were not able to move upstairs against showers of hand grenades, and therefore retreated. Overnight the outbuildings were captured and the château kept under fire by the tanks.

From 09.30 to 10.00 on the following morning, both British infantry battalions reached their final objectives to the west of Maltot and the woods to the village’s south. The tanks then withdrew behind their start line, having lost eight vehicles. Shortly after dawn the Germans still in the château surrendered after abandoning all hope of being rescued by a dawn counterattack.

By the end of 'Express', the fighting for the Allies' Normandy lodgement had reduced the 10th SS Panzerdivision from about 15,000 men to 2,289, and counterattacks on only the most vital positions could be contemplated.

Dawn revealed to the British the sight of the dead of 'Jupiter' and the longer-range fire of German tanks and artillery on the south-eastern ridge of Hill 112. The British had taken more than 400 prisoners in 'Express'.

The 43rd Division was then withdrawn and its ground was taken over by Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division. Hill 112 was occupied almost without opposition on 4 August, as the Germans struggled to repel 'Cobra' and 'Bluecoat' farther to the west.