Operation Greenline

This was the British first of a pair of interlinked offensives launched as ‘Greenline’ by Lieutenant General N. M. Ritchie’s XII Corps and ‘Pomegranate’ (ii) by Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army within General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group in the area to the west of Caen in the Normandy lodgement seized in ‘Overlord’ (15/18 July 1944).

The 2nd Battle of the Odon River was a series of operations fought by the 2nd Army in mid-July 1944 against General Heinrich Eberbach’s Panzergruppe ‘West’ as part of the Battle of Normandy. ‘Greenline’ and the almost contemporary ‘Pomegranate’ were designed to divert German operational attention away from the area in which the imminent ‘Goodwood’ (i) assault from the Orne river bridgehead was to take place. The Germans had recently delivered four infantry divisions into Normandy, and the task of the 2nd Battle of the Odon River was to prevent their use as replacements for the Panzer divisions deployed against the 2nd Army for operations father to the west against Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army.

In overall terms, the 2nd Battle of the Odon River achieved no significant territorial gains, but the attritional success of the British operations was operationally and strategically successful in keeping three Panzer divisions in the area to the west of Caen, in the Odon river valley, and away from the ‘Goodwood’ (i) battlefield to the east of the Orne river.

The city of Caen had been a D-Day objective for Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 3rd Division, which made its ‘Overlord’ landing on 'Sword' Beach during 6 June 1944. The capture of Caen was admittedly an ambitious objective, but was the most important D-Day objective assigned to Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps. ‘Overlord’ called for the 2nd Army to secure the city and then establish a front from Caumont l’Eventé in the west to a point to the south-east of Caen and thus shield the left flank of the US 1st Army at the western end of the Allied beach-head, and at the same time take and hold ground suitable for the establishment of airfields to the used by the tactical warplanes of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s British 2nd Tactical Air Force so that they would not have to operate from airfields in the south of England. Caen and its surroundings would also provide the 2nd Army with a starting point for an advance to the south for the capture of Falaise, which was intended as the pivot for a wheel to the west and an advance on Argentan and the Touques river. Open and dry, the terrain between Caen and Vimont was especially promising for mobile operations, and as the Allied forces greatly outnumbered the Germans in armour tanks and mobile formations and units, a battle of manoeuvre would be to their advantage.

Hampered by congestion in the beach-head, which delayed the deployment of its armoured support. Brigadier G. E. Prior-Palmer’s 27th Armoured Brigade, and forced to divert effort to attacking strongly held German positions along the 9.25-mile (15-km) route to Caen, the 3rd Division was unable to assault Caen in force, and advanced no farther than the Bois de Lebisey. The ‘Perch’ pincer attack on Caen by Crocker’s I Corps and Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s XXX Corps began on 7 June with the object of encircling Caen from the east and west. The I Corps attacked to the south from the Orne river bridgehead but was halted by Generalmajor Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision after advancing only a short distance, and the attack by XXX Corps bogged down in front of Tilly sur Seulles, to the west of Caen, against the defences of Generalmajor Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer-Lehr-Division.

In the 7/14 June period, the XXX Corps attacked to manoeuvre behind the Panzer-Lehr-Division. Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division pushed through a gap in the German front line caused by the success of Major General Clarence R. Huebner’s US 1st Division and occupied Villers Bocage on the road to Caen from the west. The vanguard of the 7th Armoured Division was eventually withdrawn from the town, but by 17 June the Panzer-Lehr-Division had been forced back and the XXX Corps had taken Tilly sur Seulles. Another operation was intended until 19 June, when a severe storm descended upon the English Channel, lasted for three days and delayed the Allied build-up. Most of the convoys of landing craft and ships already at sea were driven back to ports in the southern UK, while towed barges and other loads, including 2.5 miles (4 km) of floating roadways for the ‘Mulberry’ artificial harbours, were lost and 800 craft were stranded on the Normandy beaches until a high tide in July lifted them off.

In ‘Epsom’, otherwise the 1st Battle of the Odon River on 26/30 June, Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps was to advance to the south on the left flank of the XXX Corps, in the area to the west of Caen, across the Odon and Orne rivers and capture the high ground near Bretteville sur Laize to the south of Caen. The attack was preceded by ‘Martlet’ (also known as ‘Dauntless’) by the XXX Corps, to secure the western flank of the VIII Corps by capturing the high ground of the Rauray spur. The German defenders managed to contain the offensive in the vicinity of Hill 112, by committing all of their armoured units, including the two panzer divisions of SS-Obergruppenführer under General der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s II SS Panzerkorps, newly arrived in Normandy and intended for a counter-offensive against the British and US positions around Bayeux.

‘Jupiter’ (ii) on 10/11 July was another attack by the VIII Corps designed to capture Baron sur Odon, Fontaine Etoupefour, Château de Fontaine and the rest of Hill 112. Following the capture of these objectives, the VIII Corps was to take Eterville, Maltot and the ground up to the Orne river. Tanks of Brigadier R. M. P. Carver’s British 4th Armoured Brigade, supported by infantry, were then to advance through the captured ground and secure several villages to the west of the Orne river. It was hoped that all of the first-phase objectives could be taken by 09.00 on the first day to allow the 4th Armoured Brigade to begin the second phase. The opening phase was successful, but the battle for Hill 112 went on all day and the village of Maltot changed hands several times.

On 14 July, Montgomery sent his military assistant to London to brief the director of military operations at the War Office that ‘the real object is to muck up and write off enemy troops…All the activities on the eastern flank are designed to help the forces in the west while ensuring that a firm bastion is maintained in the east. At the same time all is ready to take advantage of any situation which gives reason to think that the enemy is disintegrating.’

Early in July the US 1st Army had attacked down the west coast of the Cotentin peninsula but made little progress either there or farther inland. The discovery that infantry reinforcements and the Panzer-Lehr-Division had reached the US front made it important that British operations at the eastern end of the Allied lodgement continued, and thereby prevented more transfers before the US 1st Army resumed its offensive on 19 July.

As preparations, centred on a regrouping on 12/13 July, were made for the launch of ‘Goodwood’ (i) on 17 July (later postponed to 18 July), the 2nd Army planned two preliminary operations to prevent the Panzergruppe ‘West’ from relieving Panzer divisions with four freshly arrived infantry divisions, which would have made it possible for Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ to supervise the re-creation of a strategically and operationally significant armoured reserve. The British armoured force (three armoured divisions and seven tank and armoured brigades) now faced six Panzer divisions and three heavy tank battalions. The British units were at full strength, but the German formations and units had suffered considerable combat attrition and few losses had been replaced. However, the German defences had been prepared in some depth and cleverly exploited terrain features in the laying of minefields and the siting of large numbers of long-range anti-tank guns and three brigades of Nebelwerfer artillery rocket launchers.

The XII Corps and XXX Corps planned holding operations on the British left flank in the Odon river valley between Tilly sur Seulles in the west and Caen in the east, both to improve their own positions and to deceive the German command that the expected British offensive would be launched in the area to the west of the Orne river, even as ‘Goodwood’ (i) was being prepared in the area to the east of this river. On 15 July, the XII Corps was to attack from the Odon salient in order to establish a secure start line along the road running to the south-east from Bougy through Evrecy, for a later advance to the south-west in the direction of Aunay or to the south-east in the direction of Thury Harcourt. On the following day, the XXX Corps was to began an operation to take ground around Noyers in preparation for a move to take the high ground to the north-east of Villers Bocage.

In ‘Greenline’, the XII Corps comprised Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s 15th Division reinforced by a brigade of Major General R. K. Ross’s 53rd Division and Brigadier Brigadier W. S. Clarke’s 34th Army Tank Brigade, Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division and the other two brigades of the 53rd Division. These formations and units were to attack at 21.30 on 15 July, using ‘Monty’s moonlight’ (searchlight beams reflected from clouds to illuminate the ground). The two of the 53rd Division’s brigades were to secure a start line for the 43rd Division to attack towards Hill 112 and drive a corridor to the Orne river via Bougy, Evrecy and Maizet, ready to advance on Aunay sur Odon or Thury Harcourt in the event that the Germans pulled back. Farther to the west, the XXX Corps was start ‘Pomegranate’ on 16 July. In this, Major General E. H. Barker’s 49th Division on the right was to capture Vendes and the surrounding area, Major General L. O. Lyne’s 59th Division in the centre was to capture the villages of Noyers Bocage, Haut des Forges and Landelle, and Ross’s 53rd Division on the left was to attack, ready for the corps to advance toward the high ground to the north-east of Villers Bocage.

On 29 June, during ‘Epsom’, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt and Rommel, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ and commander of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ respectively, had met with Adolf Hitler at Berchtesgaden, where the two commanders had been ordered to maintain the defence of Normandy and to organise a counter-offensive against the British salient. On their return from Germany, the two commanders received reports from SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser and General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg, the commander of the 7th Army and the Panzergruppe ‘West’ respectively, calling for a retirement from Caen to a new line beyond the range of the Allied naval guns which were proving so potent in support of the Allied forces in the land battle. The proposals were forwarded to Hitler, and on 2 July von Rundstedt was replaced by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge; Geyr von Schweppenburg was replaced by Eberbach one day later.

On 8 July Hitler issued a new directive ordering that the front in Normandy be maintained as the German forces lacked the tactical mobility for a battle of manoeuvre and also an Allied landing in the Pas de Calais was believed imminent. von Kluge made a tour of inspection and ordered that the existing positions be maintained, that they be increased in depth by the use of every available man for labour, and that a counter-offensive by the seven Panzer divisions be readied for commitment against the Odon salient on 1 August, by which date the infantry divisions arriving in Normandy must have completed their relief of the Panzer divisions in the front line. The German counter-offensive was to be undertaken on a 3.2-mile (5-km) front between Grainville sur Odon and Juvigny sur Seulles, and to have Luc sur Mer, to the north of Caen, as it objective. Rommel thought the plan unrealistic, and on 16 July wrote to Hitler predicting that the Normandy front would soon collapse. On the next day Rommel was wounded as the vehicle in which he was travelling was strafed by a British fighter, and ended his service in Normandy.

On the left flank of the 15th Division, the crossroads at Le Bon Repos and the higher ground overlooking Esquay Notre Dame were attacked by the 2/Glasgow Highlanders of Brigadier C, M. Barber’s 46th Brigade, supported by the Churchill infantry tanks of the 107th Regiment Royal Armoured Corps of the 34th Tank Brigade and the Churchill AVRE assault pioneer tanks and Churchill Crocodile flamethrower tanks of the 141st Regiment RAC of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division. The Glaswegians advanced from the north-east to the south-west over the northern slope of Hill 112, toward the defences of the 3/21st SS Panzergrenadierregiment. As the infantry emerged from dead ground they were met by massed mortar fire, which temporarily disorganised the battalion, as did a smoke screen placed on Hill 112, which had merged with fog and covered the area. The Glaswegians nonetheless managed to cross the start line on time at 21:30 and captured the SS survivors of a flame attack by the Churchill Crocodile tanks on the road linking Croix des Filandriers and Le Bon Repos. The advance continued downhill under ‘Monty’s moonlight’ and covering fire from the 107th RAC’s Churchill tanks, on higher ground just to the south of Baron. Esquay had been taken by 23.00 but not held, as its position below a saucer of higher ground made it a shell-trap exploited by the German artillery.

During the evening and night the two leading tank squadrons and two troops of the 141st RAC’s Churchill Crocodile vehicles were engaged while the third squadron waited in reserve behind the crest under frequent mortar fire. Four tanks were lost, but most of their crew members returned after dark. The infantry meanwhile dug in on the surrounding rises at positions which had been decided earlier on the basis of aerial reconnaissance photographs.

The attack was interpreted by the Germans as a move on Hill 112 and the PzKpfw VI Tiger II heavy tanks of the 102nd schwere SS Panzerabteilung were sent up the southern slope to repulse an attack which was not made. Farther to the west, the rest of the division had captured Point 113 but not Evrecy, which left the Glaswegians overlooked from both flanks, although German counterattacks by infantry of the 21st SS Panzergrenadierregiment and tanks of the 10th SS Panzerregiment at first concentrated on Esquay, which had already been evacuated. The Germans counterattack then fell on the positions around Le Bon Repos, where two PzKpfw IV battle tanks were knocked out by 6-pdr anti-tank guns. The Scotts were pushed back several times, only for the XII Corps’ medium artillery to bombard the Germans so heavily that they pulled back out of the position. On 18 July, the 107th RAC had a skirmish with dug-in Tiger II heavy tanks and two 88-mm (3.465-in) self-propelled guns and lost four tanks on the ridge. The Scots maintained their positions for two days before being relieved by a battalion of the 53rd Division.

Brigadier H. D. K. Money’s 44th Brigade was to attack to the south-west from Tourmauville to take Point 113, Gavrus and Bougy in the Odon river valley, while Brigadier E. C. Colville’s 227th Brigade captured Esquay and then attacked Evrecy. The main attack by the 44th Brigade would then start, with an attack by the 6/King’s Own Scottish Borderers on Point 113 and then an attack by the 2/Gordon Highlanders and 10/Highland Light Infantry of the 227th Brigade on the left flank at 22.30, followed by an attack by the 8/Royal Scots with the 153rd RAC of the 34th Army Tank Brigade on the flank of the hill at 05.30 on 16 July, to take Gavrus and Bougy; ‘Monty’s moonlight’ was to be deployed to assist the night advance. The 6/King’s Own Scottish Borderers formed on a start line behind the German outpost line and drove straight into the German defences. By morning the Scots were dug in on the hill, one company 1,000 yards (915 m) ahead of its objective, which disrupted German preparations for a counterattack, before pulling back to its objective.

At 05.30 on 16 July, the 8/Royal Scots and 153rd RAC advanced toward Gavrus, the tanks attacking to the side of the hill on the left flank, protected from the Germans in Evrecy by the ridge, with the object of getting behind the village and threatening the German line of retreat, while the infantry overran the village. By 07.45 the 8/Royal Scots had taken the village and 70 prisoners. A similar attack was made on Bougy and another 100 prisoners were taken after the garrison had been routed. During the day the Germans made several counterattacks on the Scottish positions, but were driven back by artillery fire with significant losses. During the afternoon the Germans made two counterattacks with Tiger and PzKpfw V Panther tanks accompanied by infantry. Mortar fire on the forward positions was continuous throughout the afternoon and evening, but the Scots lost no ground and inflicted many casualties on the Germans. The tank crews fought or were at instant readiness for 30 hours without relief until the end of the German counterattacks. The 6/Royal Scots Fusiliers were moved forward to Gavrus and the 8/Royal Scots formed up at Bougy. On the left flank, the situation deteriorated after the 227th Brigade’s attack on Evrecy failed, and ground contact with the 6/King’s Own Scottish Borderers became strained.

By the break of day on 16 July the 15th Division had captured Bougy and Gavrus, and had also dug in around Esquay and the western end of Point 113. On 17 July, the front line became quieter but the 44th Brigade was exposed by the success of the German defenders on the flanks and subjected to artillery bombardment. The 6/King’s Own Scottish Borderers beat back a pair of German attacks, and the Germans defeated the British attacks towards Evrecy. Two patrols of the 8/Royal Scots Fusiliers toward Evrecy found that German positions were still occupied. By the morning of 18 July the German positions were found to have been partly evacuated and the 6/King’s Own Scottish Borderers pushed forward to the road linking Bougy and Evrecy. An attack by Lyne’s 59th Division of the XXX Corps, from the western flank towards the positions of the 8/Royal Scots made only very slow progress. Four more German counterattacks against the 44th Brigade were defeated. During the night the brigade was relieved by Brigadier V. Blomfield’s 71st Brigade of the 53rd Division and returned to Le Haut du Bosq, suffering several casualties on the way. SS-Brigadeführer under Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Sylvester Stadler’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ was brought up from reserve, and by the end of the day had restored the German front line everywhere except at Hill 113.

Brigadier S. O. Jones’s 158th Brigade of the 53rd Division, under command of the 15th Division, and the 147th RAC were scheduled to attack early on 16 July. The attack was postponed as the minefields around Baron had not been cleared, but several flail tanks and two Churchill tanks had been disabled by mine explosions. On the next night the attack was cancelled as a result of fog, and the operation began late on 17 July. The attack on Evrecy required a long advance down a forward slope to the village. The attack was poorly prepared and the infantry battalion had already been depleted by casualties, a composite company being formed from one officer and 50 men and a second company consisting of only a composite platoon. The infantry were too tired to keep up with the tanks, which had to move quickly when brought under fire of 88-mm (3.465-in) guns from the village. About 150 prisoners were taken, but mortar fire forced the infantry back to their start line.The 53rd Division captured Cahier and defeated several large counterattacks. More attacks by the XII Corps gained no ground and during the evening of 17 July, and the British force on Point 113 withdrew, so bringing ‘Greenline’ to an end.

The most important results of ‘Greenline’ and ‘Pomegranate’, which had cost the British some 3,500 casualties and the Germans about 2,000 casualties as well as a number of armoured fighting vehicles, was the fact that the 1st SS Panzerdivision, 10th SS Panzerdivision and 2nd Panzerdivision had been kept in the battle, and the 9th SS Panzerdivision had been called from corps reserve to help with counterattacks, and that the fighting had served to make the Germans think the British were planning to break out across the Orne river between Caen and Amaye, so helping to conceal the British plan to attack on the other side of Caen in ‘Goodwood’ (i).