Operation Gold (iii)

This was the British assault beach for Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s XXX Corps in ‘Overlord’, running from the junction point with the British I Corps’ 'Juno' Beach at La Rivière westward to Arromanches (6 June 1944).

This area of northern Normandy was defended by the 726th Grenadierregiment and 915th Grenadierregiment of Generalleutnant Wilhelm Richter’s 716th Division (under the temporary command of Generalmajor Ludwig Krug) of General Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps within Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army.

The British assault force comprised Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division and Brigadier H. F. S. Cracroft’s 8th Armoured Brigade, supported on its right flank at Arromanches by No. 47 (RM) Commando of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade.

The British units which effected the first landings were, on the left, Brigadier F. Y. C. Knox’s 69th Brigade and, on the right, Brigadier Sir A. G. B. Stanier’s 231st Brigade, which suffered comparatively heavy casualties, partly because the Sherman DD amphibious tanks tasked with supporting the landing were delayed, and the Germans had strongly fortified a village on the beach. However, the 50th Division overcame its difficulties and had advanced almost to the outskirts of Bayeux by the end of the day with the aid of its two other brigades, Brigadier E. C. Pepper’s 56th Brigade and Brigadier R. H. Senior’s 151st Brigade.

With the exception of Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division on 'Juno' Beach, no Allied formation came closer to its first-day objectives than the 50th Division.

No. 47 (RM) Commando was the last British commando unit to land and came ashore on Gold Beach to the east of Le Hamel with the task of proceeding inland and then wheeling to the west before making a 10-mile (16-km) march through German-held territory to attack the harbour of Port en Bessin from the rear. This small port, on the British extreme right, was well sheltered in the chalk cliff and significant in that it was to be a prime early harbour for supplies to be brought in including fuel by underwater pipe from tankers moored offshore.

Knox’s 69th Brigade was landed on the ‘King’ assault area as the left-hand half of the 50th Division’s two-brigade landing on Gold Beach, and in the first phase of the operation put ashore the 5/East Yorkshire Regiment on the left and the 6/Green Howards on the right. The assault of these two infantry battalions was supported by the Sherman DD amphibious tanks of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards of Brigadier H. F. S. Cracroft’s 8th Armoured Brigade and the Centaur tanks of one battery of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment. Further weight was added to the landing by the specialised breaching vehicles of two units from Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division (the AVREs of one squadron of Brigadier G. L. Watkinson’s 1st Assault Brigade’s 6th Engineer Assault Regiment and the flail tanks of one Westminster Dragons squadron of Brigadier N. W. Duncan’s 30th Armoured Brigade).

The assault forces were backed by the 7/Green Howards and the self-propelled guns of the 86th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery.

The brigade was transported to France by the craft of Assault Group G2 of Force G, and naval gunfire support was provided by Bombarding Force K as the transports halted and loaded the infantrymen into their assault landing craft while Royal Navy and Royal Engineer underwater obstacle clearance teams opened the way to the beaches.

The two leading battalions landed between La Rivière and a point just to the east of Hable de Heurtot. The main German defences were the strongpoints at La Rivière and Hable de Heurtot on the flanks, and at Mont Fleury in the centre. The 5/East Yorkshire Regiment landed at 07.30 near La Rivière, but was initially pinned under the seawall by the fire of the weapons in the German strongpoint. The battalion commander called for support, which was ably provided by destroyers and support craft. A flail tank of the Westminster Dragoons knocked out an 88-mm (3.465-in) gun, and the 5/East Yorkshire Regiment could then move into the German strongpoint. Even so, it took several hours to clear the strongpoint and village at the cost of 90 British dead and wounded. Other elements of the battalion had meanwhile captured the strongpoint at the lighthouse near Mont Fleury and then moved on Ver sur Mer.

The 6/Green Howards had meanwhile landed farther to the west with the object of taking the German strongpoint at Hable de Heurtot. Ably supported by AVREs, the infantry took four pillboxes and two of the AVREs then crossed the sea wall to rout the rest of the German garrison. The 6/Green Howards now advanced inland toward Mont Fleury, capturing a battery whose guns had not fired after a pounding by bombers and the 6-in (152-mm) guns of the British light cruiser Orion.

The 69th Brigade’s third battalion was the 7/Green Howards, and this landed without difficulty from 08.20 and moved immediately on Ver sur Mer, just to the south of Mont Fleury on the River de Provence. The battalion found no resistance in Ver sur Mer and pushed forward to a battery just to its south. Crushed by bombing and a two-hour bombardment by the 6-in (152-mm) guns of the light cruiser Belfast, the Germans surrendered: their four 105-mm (4.13-in) guns had fired only 87 rounds between them.

The 69th Brigade’s task was now to push inland and cross the Seulles river in the region of St Gabriel and Creully before securing the road between Caen and Bayeux near Ste Croix Grand’Tonne. Through the afternoon and early evening the brigade’s battalions pushed to the south with armoured support, but could not reach their objective and halted for the night in an arc extending between Creully and the southern bend of the Seulles river with its southernmost portion between Coulombs and Rucqueville.

Stanier’s 231st Brigade was landed on the ‘Jig’ assault area as the right-hand half of the 50th Division’s two-brigade landing on Gold Beach, and in the first phase of the operation put ashore the 1/Dorset Regiment and 1/Royal Hampshire Regiment on the left and right respectively. The assault of these two battalions was supported by the Sherman DD amphibious tanks of the Nottinghamshire Yeomanry of the 8th Armoured Brigade and the Centaur tanks of one battery of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment, and further support was added by breaching vehicles of two 79th Armoured Division units (one squadron of the 1st Assault Brigade’s 6th Engineer Assault Regiment with AVREs and one squadron of the 30th Armoured Brigade’s Westminster Dragoons with flail tanks).

The assault forces were backed by the 2/Devonshire Regiment and the self-propelled guns of the 90th and 147th Field Regiments, Royal Artillery.

The two leading battalions landed between Hable de Heurtot and a point just to the east of Le Hamel. The main German defences were the large strongpoints at Le Hamel and Asnelles sur Mer, and a smaller strongpoint near les Roquettes.

The most important initial task for the 231st Brigade was the capture of Le Hamel just to the west of the ‘Jig’ assault area to open the way for its advance to Arromanches les Bains. On the western side of Le Hamel, one company of German infantry manned a number of fortified houses and entrenched positions inside barbed wire and minefields, and on its eastern side a comparable but stronger complex. The wind and tide carried the 1/Royal Hampshire Regiment away from its landing area near Le Hamel to a spot near Les Roquettes, however, and the infantry landed before its Sherman DD support tanks. The Centaur tanks of the 1st Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment were also late, and in the event only five of these 10 vehicles were landed, four of them soon being knocked out by German enfilading fire from Le Hamel. Even so the infantry landed without undue casualties, overran Les Roquettes and then turned to the west in the direction of Le Hamel, soon coming under a withering cross fire.

The 1/Dorset Regiment landed farther to the east without great difficulty, consolidated in Les Roquettes and then moved to the west via Meuvaines to bypass Le Hamel and reach Buhot and Puits d’Herode.

The brigade’s third battalion, the 2/Devonshire Regiment, started to land near Le Hamel from 08.20. The battalion commander detached one of his companies to aid the 1/Royal Hampshire Regiment in the fight for Le Hamel while the rest of his unit moved round Asnelles to Ryes on the southern side of Arromanches. Le Hamel fell only later in the day just as Ryes was taken and the German radar station at Arromanches was occupied.

The 231st Brigade moved firmly into this town after a battery of four 105-mm (4.13-in) guns to its south had been silenced before firing a single shot, and the rest of the town was then seized in fighting that lasted to 21.00. La Rosière was taken during the evening, but Tracy sur Mer was still infested by German snipers and Stanier halted his men for the night in an arc from Le Hamel to Puits d’Herode with its western end beyond Arromanches, somewhat short of Longues and its battery, which were the brigade’s ultimate objectives.

Brigadier R. H. Senior’s 151st Brigade was one of the 50th Division’s two reserve brigades, and its specific tasks for D-Day were backing the 69th Brigade and then exploiting its landing with an advance to the right of the 69th Brigade. The 151st Brigade’s task for the day was an advance to the south-west alongside the division’s other reserve brigade, Brigadier E. C. Pepper’s 56th Brigade, with the objective of reaching and seizing, in the area between Bayeux and the Seulles river, the road and rail lines linking Bayeux with Caen. Here it would halt with the 69th and 59th Brigades on its left and right respectively.

The 151st Brigade started to land its three battalions (6, 7 and 8/Durham Light Infantry) from about 11.00 on 'King' beach. Inland from the beach, the brigade deployed into two groups supported by the 90th Field Regiment, Royal Artillery. The right-hand group set out from Meuvaines with the 8/DLI in the lead, and advanced south-west on a route paralleling the road from Crépon to Bayeux. The left-hand group was spearheaded by the 6/DLI with the support of one squadron of the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards, and moved just to the west of south from Crépon to Villiers le Sec before wheeling farther to the west in the direction of Bayeux.

The 69th and 151st Brigades were thus moving on slightly divergent axes, and ran into the 915th Grenadierregiment and other elements of Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division. The regiment was stationed in Bayeux and had been on the move since a time early in the morning. It was first ordered to the west to deal with an airborne landing reported between Carentan and the Vire river. When this landing proved illusory, the regiment was ordered back to Bayeux in preparation for a counterattack to the north-east in the direction of Crépon, in order to to remedy the situation caused by the overwhelming of the battalion around Mont Fleury. Finally one of the regiment’s battalions and a number of assault guns were diverted to the north to tackle the US landing on Omaha Beach. This left one grenadier battalion, one fusilier battalion and 10 anti-tank guns as a Kampfgruppe which reached the area between Villers le Sec and Bazenville at about 16.00. There followed some serious fighting before the Germans, having lost the grenadier regiment’s commander, were forced back across the Seulles river with only some 90 survivors who were combined with the survivors of the 726th Grenadierregiment to improvise a defensive line between Coulombs and Asnelles sur Mer, both of which were already in British hands.

By about 20.30, the advance elements of the 151st Brigade had reached the road linking Caen and Bayeux. Reconnaissance by the 4th/7th Dragoon Guards revealed a virtual total absence of opposition for at least 3,000 yards (2750 m) to the south-east in the direction of St Leger, but the brigade was ordered to halt in a wide and deep arc to the north and therefore somewhat short of its objective. The 151st Brigade therefore ended D-Day between Sommervieu and Esquay sur Seulles. This was perhaps sensible, for earlier in the evening the 69th Brigade had suffered some casualties in crossing the Seulles river at Creully, and then received news at 18.30 that some 40 German armoured fighting vehicles were moving to the north between Rucqueville and Brécy. At about 19.30 these German vehicles were tackled by the guns of the cruiser Orion and fell back after losing three of their number. Though scattered, the German tanks were a possible threat to the flank of any continued advance by the 151st Brigade.

As the 151st Brigade was landing over the ‘King’ assault area originally secured by the 69th Brigade, Pepper’s 56th Brigade was similarly coming ashore over the ‘Jig’ assault area won earlier in the day by the 231st Brigade. Brought to France from the UK like its brother reserve brigade in the ships of Force G’s Assault Group G3, the 56th Brigade started to land at about 11.00, and as quickly as possible made for its inland assembly area after extricating itself from the slowly reducing orderly chaos of the beach area. The three battalions which met at the assembly area were the 2/South Wales Borderers, 2/Gloucestershire Regiment and 2/Essex Regiment. The process proceeded smoothly, and soon after 12.00, therefore, all four of the 50th Division’s brigades were ashore in Normandy.

The task of the 56th Brigade was now to push to the south-west with the object of reaching the Drome river. The 56th Brigade moved off in two roughly parallel groups, one on each side of the road linking Arromanches and Bayeux. The right-hand column was headed by the 2/South Wales Borderers and passed through La Rosière without incident. As this column approached Pouligny, the Germans fired the radar station and made off. The 2/South Wales Borderers then veered slightly farther to the west, and reached Vaux sur Aure shortly before 24.00. The area had been bombed and the nearby battery had been shelled by the 5.25-in (133-mm) gun of the light cruiser Argonaut, and the 2/South Wales Borderers found the area deserted by the Germans. The battalion secured the bridge over the Aure river in expectation of a continued advance on the following day, and then bedded down for the night.

The left-hand column of the 56th Brigade was headed by the 2/Essex Regiment with the 2/Gloucester Regiment following. The 2/Essex Regiment encountered only very light resistance as it pushed slowly forward, and by the early evening had reached St Sulpice, where it halted for the night. The 2/Gloucestershire Regiment stopped for the night at Magny slightly farther to the north.

By the end of D-Day, therefore, the 56th Brigade was concentrated in the area between Vaux sur Aure and St Sulpice after a virtually unopposed advance of about 3 miles (4.8 km). Bayeux beckoned, but the 56th Brigade was not to be tempted.

Graham had meanwhile arrived in the divisional beach-head and established his headquarters between Meuvaines and Crépon. Bucknall had also visited the lodgement to witness events for himself, but had then returned to the command ship Bulolo as this offered better radio links than any forward headquarters. Order was being created out of chaos on the divisional beach, and elements of Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division had started to concentrate in the area to the south of Ryes. All in all, therefore, the 50th Division had achieved much in the course of D-Day, though not as much as had been hoped or indeed anticipated. The landings had proceeded well despite the chaos on the beaches, but the development had then followed too slowly and methodically.

With hindsight it is possible to see that perhaps too much was asked of the assault divisions on the first day of ‘Overlord’, but it is also possible to deduce that tactical commanders failed to exploit in full the opportunities they were offered. In the case of the 50th Division, Bayeux and its links with Caen were still in German hands. So too was Arromanches, which was needed for the vast ‘Mulberry’ artificial harbour that was to be created for the reinforcement and sustenance of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army up to the time that a major port could be captured and brought into operation.