Operation Sword

This was the British assault beach for Major General G. R. Rennie’s 3rd Division in ‘Overlord’ (6 June 1944).

The beach was the easternmost of the five Allied assault areas, and stretched between the mouth of the Orne river in the east to its junction with 'Juno' Beach at a point between Luc and Langrune in the west, and was held by part of Oberst Hafner’s 736th Grenadierregiment of Generalmajor Ludwig Krug’s 716th Division within General Erich Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps of Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army. The inland region to the south-east of 'Sword' Beach was the assault area of Major General R. N. Gale’s 6th Airborne Division, whereas the beach itself was the target for the 3rd Division of Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps within Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army.

The divisional landing was made by Brigadier E. E. E. Cass’s 8th Brigade, followed by Brigadier K. P. Smith’s 185th Brigade and Brigadier J. C. Cunningham’s 9th Brigade, and supported by Brigadier G. E. Prior-Palmer’s 27th Armoured Brigade. Flank protection was provided in the east by Brigadier the Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade, and in the west by No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade.

By the end of 6 June the 'Sword' Beach area was firmly in British hands after the division had checked a counterattack during the afternoon by Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision of General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps.

The British infantry had landed with only light casualties, and had advanced over a front of some 4 miles (6.5 km) to a depth of about 5 miles (8 km) by the end of the day, but failed to achieve some of the testing targets set for it by General Sir Bernard Montgomery, commanding the Allied 21st Army Group. In particular the city of Caen, a major objective, was still in German hands.

The 1st Special Service Brigade went ashore in the second wave led by No. 4 Commando with its two French troops first, as agreed among themselves. The British and French of No. 4 Commando had separate targets in Ouistreham: the French a blockhouse and the Casino, and the British two batteries which overlooked the beach. The blockhouse proved to be too strong for the commandos’ PIAT anti-armour weapons, but the Casino was taken with the aid of a Centaur tank. The British commandos achieved both battery objectives only to find the gun mounts empty and the guns removed. Leaving the mopping-up procedure to the infantry, the commandos withdrew from Ouistreham to join the other units of 1st Special Service Brigade (Nos 3, 6 and 45 Commandos), in moving inland to link with the 6th Airborne Division.

In the early morning of 6 June, the convoys carrying the assault forces for ‘Overlord’ had approached the Normandy coast within the context of the 'Neptune' (iii) amphibious assault phase of the invasion. Many of the men, naval as well as military, had been affected by sea-sickness as a result of the rough seas, which were now in the process of subsiding from their gale-swept worst, but most of the assault troops could hear or see the activities of the bombers and naval units giving the German defences a last pounding.

The 3rd Division heading for 'Sword' Beach was carried by Convoy S under the supervision of Rear Admiral A. G. Talbot in the command ship Largs, from whose bridge Talbot and his staff could see that the convoy had reached the right position at the correct time, the only problems being the straggling of a few ships which were now making up for lost time, and the loss of some landing craft as they made their way from the English south coast in tow or under their own power. Most of the few craft lost had been those carrying heavy equipment such as the tanks of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment and the heavy mortars and 60-lb (27-kg) spigot mortars required to blast lanes through the beach minefields.

At a distance of about 8 miles (13 km) from 'Sword' Beach, the convoy halted and the troops started to clamber down the nets from the ships into their landing craft. Already the first wave of craft was moving off to launch its vanguard force of Sherman Duplex Drive amphibious tanks at a point closer to the shore. Behind the tanks, successive waves of landing craft carried the assault infantry, assault engineers with their armoured vehicles, self-propelled artillery, and then additional forces of armour, infantry, engineers, artillery together with the first elements of the mass of support equipment that would be landed as soon as the assault forces had secured the beach. The last bombers were already departing after giving the beach defences their final attention, and as the landing craft approached the beach the guns of the naval bombardment forces switched from beach to inland and flank targets, leaving the defences to be given a final pasting by the massed rockets carried by specially modified landing craft, and by the field artillery and tanks carried by another series of landing craft designed to allow their embarked weapons to engage the Germans while still afloat.

As the landing craft closed the shore and the fire of the assault forces and their naval support units was re-registered to more distant targets, it became clear that not all the German beach positions had been crushed. The defenders scrambled from their bunkers as the British fire switched to targets farther afield, manned their guns and mortars, and began to engage the landing craft as they approached the beach. These were comparatively difficult targets while they were on the move, but once beached they were considerably easier targets. Large numbers of landing craft were now hit, and the mass of British troops, vehicles and equipment ploughing through the surf and the shallower water on the edge of the beach began to suffer from the fire of the German guns and mortars, which were now supplemented in their efforts by machine guns. The landing had been timed for low water so that the incoming tide would refloat the landing craft, and the heavily laden assault forces were faced by a dangerous and sometimes long progress over a fire-swept beach.

The plan called for amphibious tanks, flail mineclearing tanks, obstacle-clearing Armoured Vehicles Royal Engineer, obstacle-clearance groups, infantry and assault engineers to arrive within minutes of each other, but precise adherence to the planned level of co-ordination was impossible. In some spots the Sherman DD tanks arrived first, but in others it was obstacle-clearance groups, assault engineers with their AVREs, flail tanks or infantry. Soon naval parties were tackling the mine-protected beach obstacles covered by the incoming tide while Royal Engineers dealt with those still above water, the flail tanks were beating paths through possible minefields for the infantry, and the AVREs were battering or bridging their way forward to create exits off the beaches for the infantry and mass of vehicles. The forces undertaking these tasks were often under enfilading fire, and the number of men and vehicles hit gradually swelled.

In several areas the infantry did not wait for these preliminary tasks to be completed, but rushed across the beaches to find cover under the dunes or beach walls and then fanned out in search of the German positions pouring down the enfilading fire. The infantry soon received the support of the tanks which had managed to cross the beach, and further capability against the German defences was provided by low-flying fighters and rocket-armed Hawker Typhoon fighter-bombers.

With the support of Prior-Palmer’s 27th Armoured Brigade, Cass’s 8th Brigade was the assault element of the 3rd Division’s 'Sword' Beach landing, and its experience during the assault phase was essentially similar to that of the other assault forces, though the fire of the escorting destroyers and other support craft was so effective that little German resistance was encountered until the landing craft were quite close inshore. The infantry assault units were the 2/East Yorkshire on the left and 1/South Lancashire on the right of the Queen assault area between La Brèche and Lion sur Mer, but these two battalions were to be preceded by the specialised armour of another unit, the 13th/18th Hussars, and then enjoy the armoured support of elements from two other regiments, namely one squadron of the 22nd Dragoons and two (later three) squadrons of the 5th Independent Battery, Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment.

The 13th/18th Hussars had 40 Sherman DD tanks, and 34 of these were launched at sea: two were lost at sea, six in the surf and another four shortly after this, leaving the regiment with 28 tanks after the 22 survivors of the offshore launch had been supplemented by six that came ashore from their landing craft. The 13th/18th Hussars did not reach the Queen assault area before the infantry, however, so the landing was started at 07.26, just one minute behind schedule, by two troops of the 5th Independent Battery, the 22nd Dragoons, and the defence-breaching teams.

Such was the strength of the onshore wind that the obstacle-clearance groups could mark only one clear lane through the beach defences before the advancing tide covered the rest until the next ebb. The conditions were so bad that the obstacle-clearance parties were soon exhausted, and several sappers were swept away. In the circumstances, the landing craft had to come ashore as best they could, and there were inevitably many losses.

The leading elements of the two infantry assault battalions arrived at 07.30 and disgorged their loads without loss, the rest of these two battalions arriving about 20 minutes later. The infantry was now faced with the task of crossing the foreshore, which had been narrowed to about 15 yards (13.75 m) by the rising tide and was swept by fire from the German strongpoint at La Brèche. The infantry managed to reach the line of houses flanking the coastal road without too many casualties, and single companies from each battalion joined forces to clear the strongpoint at La Brèche, a task achieved in some three hours of fighting. The other companies started to clear the houses. One company of the 1/South Lancashire moved to the west to guard the landing’s right flank, soon linking with No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando in a vain effort to take the strongpoint at Lion sur Mer. The bulk of the 2/East Yorkshire moved to the east to protect the landing’s left flank and take positions round Ouistreham, with No. 4 Commando and two French troops of No. 10 Commando following. The rest of the 1/South Lancashire was now able to advance inland and take Manville sur Mer by 09.00.

The 8th Brigade’s schedule had already been dislocated by the incoming tide and continued German artillery fire. The wind-aided tide had so narrowed the foreshore that lateral movement to the beach exits was virtually impossible until the ebb had widened it, and German gunners from beyond the Orne river were able to use the beach-head barrage balloons as aiming marks until these were sensibly cut away after the threat of German air attack had failed to materialise. Before this, the 1/Suffolk had had a difficult time of it while landing as the 8th Brigade’s third battalion.

By the middle of the morning, therefore, the 8th Brigade had made good progress: the 1/South Lancashire had taken Hermanville sur Mer, the 2/East Yorkshire was clearing the German positions to the south of Ouistreham, and the 1/Suffolk had moved forward to take Colleville sur Orne and was now attacking two strongpoints to the south of Colleville, known to the Allies as Morris and Hillman. The former contained four pieces of field artillery, and its 67-man garrison surrendered as soon as the 1/Suffolk appeared, but the latter held the headquarters of the 736th Grenadierregiment and fell at about 20.00 that evening only after strenuous fighting. There was little further movement in store for the 8th Brigade, which ended D-Day in an arc extending to the south-west from Hermanville sur Mer in front of the road to Caen.

The second element of the 3rd Division to land was Smith’s 185th Brigade, also supported by the 27th Armoured Brigade, and this brigade started to come ashore in the middle of the morning. The brigade was a short time behind schedule, but this fact was not vitally important as its predecessor onto French soil, the 8th Brigade, was already somewhat behind schedule and was now being slowed by the German defence on the northern slope of the ridge between Périers sur le Dan and Hermanville sur Mer. As the brigade lost momentum, the pressure behind it increased.

The specialised armoured fighting vehicle 'funnies' of elements of Major General Sir Percy Hobart’s 79th Armoured Division had opened eight out of the nine planned exit lanes from 'Sword' Beach and masses of men and equipment were coming in from the sea. But there was limited opportunity on the beach for these forces to reach their right exits, and then little space for them to occupy once they had cleared the beach, so there was inevitable but unfortunate congestion.

The 185th Brigade’s three battalions had a high priority, and by 11.00 had left the beach area to reach the brigade’s allotted concentration area about 880 yards (805 m) inland in the orchard area near Hermanville sur Mer. It was such a situation which revealed the lack of tactical experience among British commanders: if the 185th Brigade had reinforced the 8th Brigade, some of the lost momentum might have been regained and the Germans’ Hillman position might have been taken during the afternoon rather than the evening of 6 June, with a consequent benefit to the speed of the British advance on Caen.

But the 185th Brigade had been allocated the task of leading the drive on Caen after passing through the 8th Brigade. Smith decided to await his heavy weapons and armoured support before committing his brigade, and thus was lost a vital chance for a rapid breakthrough over the Périers ridge, and with it the opportunity not only for a speedy advance on Caen but also for the much-needed relief of the air-head of Gale’s 6th Airborne Division on the eastern side of the Orne river. Further delay was now occasioned by the congestion on 'Sword' Beach, for the 185th Brigade’s advance toward Caen was to be led by the 2/King’s Shropshire Light Infantry riding on the tanks of the Staffordshire Yeomanry and supported by the guns of the 7th Field Regiment. The 2/KSLI’s allotment of tanks managed to get clear of the beach-head but was then delayed by a minefield, and at 12.00 the artillery and most of the tanks and the 185th Brigade’s heavy weapons were still trapped in the congestion and fretting to move inland for their tasks. Smith finally decided that further delay was unacceptable, and at about 12.30 the 2/KSLI started to move south. By 14.00 the battalion had reached the crest of the Périers ridge. The first tanks had meanwhile caught up with the infantry and indeed overtaken the latter’s leading elements, but now came under fire from the woods to their right front. Soon five of the Staffordshire Yeomanry’s gun tanks and four of the Westminster Dragoons’ flail tanks had been hit, and a company of infantry was diverted to support the armour as the rest of the 2nd KSLI’s column continued along the road toward Caen, moving to the south toward Beuville and Biéville as a squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry’s tanks occupied the tactically important Point 61 commanding the area around it.

The rest of the 185th Brigade, namely the 2/Warwick and 1/Norfolk, remained at the brigade’s initial assembly point near Hermanville sur Mer for several hours. At 15.00 hours the 1/Norfolk was ordered to move up and secure the high ground to the left of the 2/KSLI. The battalion’s commander thought that St Aubin d’Arquenay was still held by the Germans (even though Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade had passed through it at 12.00), and therefore decided to move across country between St Aubin and the Hillman position. The battalion lost its direction in a field of standing corn covered by the machine guns of Hillman, which was still untaken, and in a very short space of time suffered no fewer than 150 casualties. The battalion pressed on, however, and by 19.00 had taken the high ground between Beuville and Bénouville.

The 2/Warwick was not ordered forward until the late afternoon, and reached St Aubin at about 18.00.

At 16.00 the 185th Brigade was moving toward Caen along two axes. On the direct road from Hermanville sur Mer was the 2/KSLI at Beuville and Biéville: here the battalion was joined by its 6-pdr anti-tank guns, and further support was provided by the 17-pdr anti-tank guns of the 20th Anti-Tank Regiment and the tanks of one Staffordshire Yeomanry squadron. (Of the other two Staffordshire Yeomanry squadrons, one was supporting the 1/Suffolk’s attack on Hillman and the other was on Périers ridge as a right-flank guard.) Farther to the rear, and moving to the south-east toward the more easterly road from Ouistreham to Caen, were the brigade’s other two battalions, the 1/Norfolk and 2/Warwick.

It was at this point in the day’s fighting that the first German armour was encountered. The initial indication that the British tanks were about to encounter their German opposite numbers came shortly after 16.00, when a forward troop of the Staffordshire Yeomanry reported seeing German tanks on the move from Caen. The Staffordshire Yeomanry squadron supporting the attack on Hillman was diverted toward Biéville, and had just arrived in an area to the west of this village when it was attacked by some 40 German tanks: the Staffordshire Yeomanry’s tanks and the 2/KSLI’s anti-tank guns each knocked out two of the attackers, whose surviving vehicles veered away into the apparent safety of the woods. The Staffordshire Yeomanry pursued, and further German losses resulted from tank and artillery fire. The German tanks sheered off, linked up with others and swung round toward the Périers ridge. But there they ran into the squadron of the Staffordshire Yeomanry posted in this spot for just such an eventuality. Three more German tanks were knocked out, bringing the known total to 13 but, as later revealed by German records, in fact to a higher but unspecified number. The British had lost just one self-propelled gun.

What the 185th Brigade and its tank regiment support of the 27th Armoured Brigade had met was the leading unit of Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision, which was one of the reserve formations available to Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and had first been committed in an attempt to contain and then to eliminate the air-head of the 6th Airborne Division in the area to the east of the Orne river. Arriving on French soil before the seaborne invasion had been detected, the airborne operation had attracted the Germans’ initial response, and it was only later in the morning of 6 June, when the units of the seaborne invasion had started to land and the Germans had begun to appreciate the combined armour and infantry threat to Caen, that it was decided to switch the major focus of the 21st Panzerdivision’s from the 6th Airborne Division to the 3rd Division.

The steadfast resistance of the 185th Brigade and its armoured support now pushed the German armour farther to the west, where it advanced into the gap between the British 3rd Division and Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division on 'Juno' Beach, reaching the sea at Lion sur Mer before pulling back when two streams of gliders were seen heading for the area to its rear. The 21st Panzerdivision halted for the night at Lébisey with only 70 effective fighting vehicles still left to it.

Once the German counterattack near Biéville had been driven off, the 2/KSLI resumed its movement toward Caen, but was then checked in the area to the north of Lébisey by German positions in the woods on each side of the road. Dusk was approaching and there was the possibility of a renewed German tank attack on its right flank, so the battalion halted for the night around Beuville and Biéville with its leading elements some 3 miles (4.8 km) short of Caen.

Meanwhile the 2/Warwick, with the 1/Norfolk following, was continuing to push forward in the direction of Bénouville, but was slowed by the presence of German defenders in Le Port, just to the north of Bénouville. The 2/Warwick attacked at about 21.00, cleared Le Port and then moved on Bénouville, where a party of the 7/Parachute Regiment was holding out against German counterattacks. The 2/Warwick relieved the airborne troops and then pushed to the south along the Canal de Caen before halting for the night at Blainville.

Again supported by the 27th Armoured Brigade, Cunningham’s 9th Brigade was the last of the 3rd Division’s organic units to come ashore on 'Sword' Beach during 6 June. The brigade landed somewhat behind schedule during the early afternoon of D-Day as the division’s preceding units sought to achieve their first objectives: the 8th Brigade was consolidating the flanks of the divisional beach-head, and the 185th Brigade was pushing inland toward Caen.

It had been planned that the 9th Brigade would assemble just inland from the beach before advancing to the south-west in the direction of a point to the north of Caen through the 4-mile (6.4-km) gap between Hermanville sur Mer and the Canadian sector. Late in the morning, however, the British advance had been slowed by a number of factors, and by a time early in the afternoon the Germans had started to exploit the delay in British progress to push the armour of Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision to the north past Caen. When the Allied landings began, this division was disposed with most of its strength in the area to the south of Caen but with some units on each side of the Orne river between Caen and the sea. The 21st Panzerdivision contained many veterans of the North African fighting in its strength of 16,000 men, and its armour included 127 PzKpfw IV battle tanks and 40 assault guns supported by 24 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft/anti-tank guns.

From a time early in the morning of 6 June the division’s 125th Panzergrenadierregiment and 192nd Panzergrenadierregiment had been given the task of supporting the 736th Grenadierregiment of Krug’s 716th Division in its task of eliminating the 6th Airborne Division’s air-head in the area to the east of the Orne river. The division’s two armoured battle groups were then diverted from the 6th Airborne Division after the headquarters of Marcks’s LXXXIV Corps had begun to appreciate the threat to Caen posed by the 3rd Division. By the time this decision was taken at 08.45, some 75 minutes after the beginning of the British seaborne invasion, the 21st Panzerdivision was poorly placed to make a decisive intervention, for it was now highly dispersed with its two Panzergrenadier regiments in contact with the 6th Airborne Division, its anti-aircraft battalion around Caen, its anti-tank guns on Périers ridge with a battalion of field guns to their south, the rest of its artillery on the high ground about 15 miles (24 km) to the south-east of Caen, and its armour (mainly the 22nd Panzerregiment) some distance to the south in an area to the north-east of Falaise.

The advance of the German armour was soon detected by air reconnaissance and then attacked by low-flying warplanes: as it started to cross the Orne river at Caen and Colombelles, the 21st Panzerdivision had been whittled down to just 90 fighting vehicles. Despite this diminution of the division’s armoured strength, the Germans would clearly still be able to attack to the north and north-west from Caen during the late afternoon or early evening, so threatening to widen the gap between the British 3rd Division and Canadian 3rd Division.

During the afternoon units of the 21st Panzerdivision were in action between the 185th Brigade and the Canadians, eventually pushing forward through this gap to reach the sea at Lion sur Mer before pulling back when the sight of Allied glider trains raised the spectre of the division’s isolation by a landing in its rear.

During the afternoon, however, Rennie became worried by the increasing threat along his division’s right flank, and therefore decided to cover this flank more strongly. Rennie therefore ordered the 9th Brigade to locate itself in positions that covered the bridges over the Orne river against a possible German onslaught from the west. The assembly of the 9th Brigade was now delayed still further by the arrival on brigade headquarters of a German mortar bomb, which severely wounded Cunningham and many of his staff. Command thereupon passed, on a temporary basis, to the commanding officer of the 2/Royal Ulster Rifles, and the 9th Brigade occupied positions on the high ground between Périers sur le Dan and St Aubin d’Arquenay, just to the west of the main road south to Caen. Here the brigade halted for the night in a westward-facing position between the 8th Brigade to its north and the 185th Brigade to its south and south-east.

The last element of Crocker’s I Corps to arrive in Normandy on D-Day was Brigadier H. Murray’s 153rd Brigade of Major General D. C. Bullen-Smith’s 51st Division. This was the corps’ follow-up division, and had been gathered in Essex for the move to France, which was undertaken from Southend. The brigade was carried to France by Force L together with the fighting elements of Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division of Lieutenant General G. T. Bucknall’s XXX Corps. The preceding convoy had lost a motor transport ship to German coastal artillery fire, but the Force L convoy used smoke and electronic countermeasures to avoid the attentions of the German gunners. The 153rd Brigade’s three infantry battalions arrived during the evening of 6 June, but took no part in the fighting.

The Normandy landings had taken the Germans by complete operational and tactical surprise. Reports of the US and British west- and east-flank airborne landings had soon begun to reach the headquarters of the relevant German formations, namely the LXXXIV Corps and General Adolf Kuntzen’s LXXXI Corps, located at St Lô and Rouen respectively, and were then passed to higher headquarters, namely those of Generaloberst Hans von Salmuth’s 15th Army and Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army, and thence to Rommel’s Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and lastly the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, in Paris. von Salmuth and Dollmann had agreed from the start that the Allied operation posed a real threat, but this sentiment was not echoed at higher level, where von Rundstedt and Generalleutnant Dr Hans Speidel, chief-of-staff of Heeresgruppe ‘B’ and deputising for Rommel, who was absent in Germany, agreed initially that the landings were a feint.

At 02.45 the 7th Army allocated to the LXXXIV Corps Generalmajor Bernhard Klosterkemper’s 91st Luftlande-Division to help eliminate the US ‘Albany’ and ‘Boston’ airborne landings, and at 07.00 the 21st Panzerdivision was allocated to the 7th Army for a similar role against the British ‘Tonga’ airborne landing. But as the nature and extent of the Allied landings had started to become clearer, and as local commanders called for additional strength, the confidence of von Rundstedt and Speidel in the accuracy of their initial diagnosis began to waver: what had at first seemed to be an airborne diversion intended to draw German forces away from the real invasion area, probably the Pas de Calais, was now becoming evident as an altogether more threatening Allied effort, as indicated by the commitment of major ground forces including armoured and infantry formations.

At 05.00 von Rundstedt ordered Speidel to move SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Fritz Witt’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ to a position behind Generalleutnant Josef Reichert’s 711th Division for intervention should this become necessary, and to warn Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer-Lehr-Division for rapid movement. The two Panzer divisions were the components of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps, which was the theatre reserve of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht under Adolf Hitler’s direct supervision. von Rundstedt’s sensible move was then vetoed by the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht in response to Hitler’s belief that the Normandy operation could only be a feint. It was only at 10.00 that Hitler and the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht agreed that the 12th SS Panzerdivision and Panzer-Lehr-Division could be moved and prepared for movement respectively, but that neither was to be committed without Oberkommando der Wehmacht’s express authorisation. It was not until 14.30 that Hitler finally allocated the I SS Panzerkorps to von Rundstedt, and as a result it was 17.00 before the corps’ two divisions began to move forward as the major combat formations of a strengthened I SS Panzerkorps which was now to include the 21st Panzerdivision and 716th Division to meet ‘the desire of the Oberkommando der Wehmacht that the enemy in the bridgehead be destroyed by the evening of 6th June as there is a danger of fresh landings by sea and air… The bridgehead must be cleared today.’

The 12th SS Panzerdivision and Panzer-Lehr-Division had been too distant to make any decisive interventions on D-Day, but Hitler’s vacillations had compounded the errors of his senior commanders, and it was now a problem of too little and too late.

On 'Sword' Beach, meanwhile, the task of the 1st Special Service Brigade had been to land to the left of the 8th Brigade and move on Ouistreham to neutralise a battery of German coast-defence guns threatening the British naval forces and other shipping off 'Sword' Beach, and then to link across the Canal de Caen and Orne river with the 6th Airborne Division’s right-hand units holding the two bridges over these waterways. These primary tasks were complemented by the secondary task of co-operating with the 2/East Yorkshire of the 8th Brigade in the provision of a left-hand flank guard for the 3rd Division.

The first element of the 1st Special Service Brigade to arrive was No. 4 Commando, which came ashore on 'Sword' Beach and turned to the east in the direction of Ouistreham in the wake of the 2/East Yorkshire. This was followed by two French troops of No. 10 (Inter-Allied) Commando and then the brigade’s other three commandos.

The opposition was found by elements of the 736th Grenadierregiment of the 716th Division, which had been in action against elements of the 6th Airborne Division since the early hours of that morning. Four Centaur tanks of the Royal Marine Armoured Support Regiment gave the commandos very useful support in the capture of the Riva Bella battery. This concrete-casemated position had received a major hammering by bombers and naval guns, but was now found by the victorious commandos to have been stripped of its guns. Farther to the east, the men of the 1st Special Service Brigade were supported by 10 vehicles of the 79th Assault Squadron, Royal Engineers, in reaching the mouth of the Canal de Caen. There followed a hard fight for the canal mouth and its lock, resulting in the capture of 60 Germans, and the commandos then discovered that while the lock gates were free of demolition charges, the associated bridge was temporarily unusable as its eastern span had been blown.

With the brigadier’s personal piper well to the fore, 1st Special Service Brigade now moved on the bridges over the Orne river, arriving just behind schedule at exactly 14.00 after advancing 9 miles (14.5 km) and in the process capturing several German strongpoints and neutralising a battery of artillery firing on Allied shipping. The commandos crossed the river and linked with the airborne troops at Ranville and Le Mariquet, but this British bridgehead was still hard-pressed as the Germans held the higher ground to the south at Hérouvillette and Longueval. No. 3 Commando was detached to support the airborne troops as No. 6 Commando and No. 45 (Royal Marine) Commandos set off to take Bréville and Merville. The commandos secured Merville but failed to dislodge the Germans from Bréville, which remained a thorn in the British left flank for another week, and the men of the 1st Special Service Brigade ended D-Day in an arc facing to the north-east between Hauger and Le Plein, with a detachment forward of this line at Merville.

The other flank of the 3rd Division’s landing was the responsibility of Brigadier B. W. Leicester’s 4th Special Service Brigade. Here there was a tactically dangerous gap of some 3 miles (4.8 km) between the eastern end of the Canadian 3rd Division’s landing area at St Aubin sur Mer and the western end of the 3rd Division’s landing area at Lion sur Mer, and the task of bridging this gap fell to the 4th Special Service Brigade. This allocated two of its four Royal Marine commandos to the task, single commandos being attached to the flanks of the Canadian and British formations. Nos 48 and 41 (Royal Marine) Commandos were thus to come ashore on the left of the Canadian landing and the right of the British landings respectively.

The task of No.41 (Royal Marine) Commando was to link with the 1/South Lancashire, which was the right-hand battalion of the 8th Brigade, and then take the position in Lion sur Mer held by elements of the 736th Grenadierregiment. The primary task of the 1/South Lancashire was the capture of Hermanville sur Mer, so it was only a single company of this battalion that moved west to link up with the men of No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando. This had suffered in a difficult landing just to the east of Lion sur Mer, where the approaches to the beaches are notably rocky, and had taken many casualties on the beach. Once they had established contact with the company of the 1/South Lancashire, the commandos moved to the west along the coast directly toward Lion sur Mer, a potent defensive position whose retention by the Germans prevented any junction between the British and Canadian 3rd Divisions as its weapons could threaten the right-flank of the British formation. The German position was well embedded in the centre of this small coastal town, which meant that the commandos had to clear the eastern approaches before they could tackle the strongpoint proper. The commandos lacked armoured support at this stage of their attack, however, so the only way they could come within effective striking distance of the German strongpoint was by means of hand-to-hand fighting through the houses on the eastern outskirts of the town. The commandos made some progress, but suffered heavy casualties and this inevitably slowed the rate of their advance on the central position.

Eventually the commandos’ progress was effectively halted, but at this juncture hope was again raised by the appearance of some armour. This comprised three specialised fighting vehicles of the 5th Engineer Assault Regiment, Royal Engineers. The attack was resumed with these fighting vehicles in the van, but the Germans concentrated the fire of their strongpoint’s single piece of artillery on the fighting vehicles. One by one, the Royal Engineers’ vehicles were knocked out by the German fire, the attack of the commandos was again halted, and Lion sur Mer remained untaken during D-Day.

The position of the Royal Marine commandos was itself threatened later in the day. The Germans holding the strongpoint in Lion sur Mer were in no position to undertake an offensive foray, which would have threatened the strongpoint’s security, but during the afternoon of 6 June the advance elements of Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision began to approach the coast. It was just such an eventuality that the 4th Special Service Brigade had been intended to counter, but the sterling defence of the 185th Brigade along the Périers ridge farther south had slowly pushed the German counterattack to the west, where it moved into the gap between the British 3rd Division and Canadian 3rd Division. Finding less opposition to their front than their flank, the German armour pushed to the north in the direction of the sea between the strongpoints still held by the 736th Grenadierregiment at Luc sur Mer in the west and Lion sur Mer in the east.

Late in the afternoon, the tanks of the 21st Panzerdivision continued to probe to the north. During the evening, however, the British ‘Mallard’ gliderborne reinforcements streamed over the German positions and the German commanders, fearing that another airborne operation near Caen might cut off the 21st Panzerdivision, ordered Feuchtinger to pull back his division: some of his tanks had reached the coast just to the west of Lion sur Mer before being called back, but most were between Périers sur le Dan and Anguerny. The division now settled in positions extending to the east from Cambes for the night, and the German tank threat to No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando did not therefore materialise.

Badly mauled and much in need of reinforcement, the men of No. 41 (Royal Marine) Commando halted for the night in the eastern approaches to Lion sur Mer.