Operation Battle of Bréville les Monts

The 'Battle of Bréville les Monts' was fought between Major General R. N. Gale’s British 6th Airborne Division and Generalleutnant Erich Diestel’s German 346th Division during the early stages of the Allied 'Overlord' invasion of France (8/13 June 1944).

In June 1944, units of the 346th Division held Bréville les Monts, a village on the watershed between the Orne and Dives rivers on the left flank of the Allied landings in 'Neptune' (iii), and from this could observe the positions of the 6th Airborne Division defending the Orne river and the Caen Canal bridges, and beyond them the British 'Sword' Beach at Ouistreham. After several German attacks on the British positions from Bréville les Monts, it was decided that the capture of the village had become essential to secure the 6th Airborne Division’s positions and protect the Allied lodgement.

The British attack took place on the night of 12/13 June, Gale committed his only reserves, the 12th (Yorkshire) Parachute Battalion, one company of the 12/Devonshire Regiment and the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. To support the attack, one tank squadron of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars and five regiments of artillery were assigned to the division. The assault had to negotiate both the British and German artillery fire, which killed or wounded several men, including some senior officers. The attackers eventually reached and secured the village. However, every officer or sergeant major who took part in the attack was killed or wounded.

After the capture of Bréville les Monts, the Germans made no further major effort to break through the airborne division’s lines, the British formation being subjected only to sporadic artillery and mortar fire. This lasted until 17 August, when the Germans started to withdraw and the 6th Airborne Division advanced to the Seine river.

On 6 June 1944, the 6th Airborne Division landed in Normandy ion the 'Tonga' parachute and 'Mallard' gliderborne operations to secure the left flank of the British landing zone. The division’s objectives were to capture intact the Caen Canal bridge and the Orne river bridge, destroy the Merville gun battery, whose site allowed it to engage troops landing at the nearby 'Sword' Beach, and blow the bridges across the Dives river to prevent German reinforcements approaching the landings from the east.

The division’s two parachute brigades, landing in 'Tonga' during the early hours of 6 June, were scattered across the countryside during the drop. Most of the battalions could muster only some three-fifths or less of their total strength on the drop zones, but nonetheless achieve all their objectives, however, before Brigadier the Hon. H. K. M. Kindersley’s 6th Air-Landing Brigade arrived by gliders to reinforce them at 21.00 that evening.

The 6th Airborne Division, now with the commandos of Brigadier the Lord Lovat’s 1st Special Service Brigade under command, had to defend the Orne river bridgehead. This was a difficult task as the formation had to face elements of Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s considerably more heavily armed 21st Panzerdivision from the south and the 346th Division and Generalleutnant Josef Reichert’s 711th Division from the east. The German forces were controlled by General hans von Salmuth’s 15th Army.

The airborne division’s brigades prepared to hold the positions they had captured, with Brigadier J. H. N. Poett’s 5th Parachute Brigade, as the division’s depth formation, dug into the area to the east of the Orne river bridge and the 6th Air-Landing Brigade to the south between Longueval and Hérouvillette. The two remaining brigades dug in along a ridge of high ground that, if lost, offered the Germans a position to look down on the British landing zone. The 1st Special Service Brigade was in the north on a line from Hameau Oger to Le Plain. In between the commandos and the air-landing brigade was Brigadier G. W. Lathbury’s 3rd Parachute Brigade. Their defensive line was incomplete, however, as the small village of Bréville les Monts, between the commandos and the 3rd Parachute Brigade, was held by the Germans. Located on the ridge line, the German position provided a view into Ranville at the heart of the British position, the two captured bridges and in the distance 'Sword' Beach.

At 01.30 on 7 June, the 9th Parachute Battalion, with only some 90 men, marched through the unoccupied village of Bréville les Monts and, reaching the 3rd Parachute Brigade’s position, dug in at the northern end of the brigade line with the ask of defending an area from the Château St Come, across a clearing in the woods, to a house known as the Bois de Mont. To the battalion’s front was a stretch of open land leading to Bréville les Monts and the road lining Amfreville and Le Mesnil les Monts. The paucity of the 9th Parachute Battalion’s manpower meant that there was a large gap between the battalion and No. 6 Commando, the most southern unit in the commandos' defensive position to their north.

The 346th Division reached the area from its base at Le Havre, and its first attack, by the 744th Grenadierregiment, was against the 1st Special Service Brigade. Attacking in strength, the Germans were on the verge of breaking through the line when No. 3 Commando counterattacked and drove them back. Later in the morning, No. 6 Commando came under artillery and mortar fire from Bréville les Monts. The commandos attacked and cleared the village of Germans, capturing several prisoners, a number of machine guns and four pieces of artillery, before withdrawing to their original position. The Germans reoccupied the village and formed their own defensive positions, facing the ridge line defended by 6th Airborne Division. Their positions also isolated the 9th Parachute Battalion, which was almost cut off from the rest of the division. The next day a patrol of the 9th Parachute Battalion reconnoitred the Château St Come. The paratroopers found it abandoned, but the presence of clothing, equipment, a half-eaten meal and a payroll containing 50,000 French francs betrayed the recent German occupancy.

Units of the 857th Grenadierregiment of the 346th Division attacked the battalion’s position at 12.00. This appeared to be only a probing attack, easily fought off by A Company. Later in the same day the Germans attacked A and C Companies, and on this occasion were driven back by Vickers machine gun fire and a counterattack by the battalion’s anti-tank platoon, with a Bren machine gun group under the command of the regimental sergeant major.

The next German attack was delivered at dawn on 9 June, when a heavy mortar bombardment landed on the 9th Parachute Battalion positions. A and C Companies then came under simultaneous attack, but after suffering many casualties, the Germans retreated into the woods surrounding the château, where they re-formed and made another abortive attack an hour later.

Brigade headquarters was attacked by a German force which had infiltrated through the woods, and Lieutenant Colonel Terence Otway, the 9th Parachute Battalion’s commanding officer, collected C Company, his headquarters staff and a small group armed with captured MG 42 machine guns. They approached the Germans from the rear and trapped them in a crossfire, killing 19 men and taking one man prisoner. During the afternoon two infantry platoons attacked A Company but were repulsed by a counterattack from C Company’s position. At 17.30 a flight of Focke-Wulf Fw 190 single-engined fighter-bombers attacked the Orne river bridgehead, causing little in the way of any damage. Soon afterward, Short Stirling four-engined bomber/transports arrived make a parachute supply drop for the division. Included in the drop were 6-pdr anti-tank guns, which until then had always been delivered by glider. Another 41 of the 9th Parachute Battalion’s missing men arrived at the battalion’s position at 21.00, bringing the battalion strength up to around 200 men.

On 19 June, a reconnaissance patrol of the 13th Parachute Battalion reported a large gathering of Germans in Bréville les Monts and suspected an imminent attack. At 08.00 a heavy artillery and mortar bombardment started to fall along the 1st Special Service Brigade’s lines, while the 857th Grenadierregiment, which had gathered in the village, attacked No. 6 Commando. By 10.30 the attack on No. 6 Commando had been driven back, but to their left at Hauger No.4 Commando had to win a hand-to-hand fight before the Germans withdrew. Twice more during the day the commandos were attacked unsuccessfully, from Sallenelles in the north and again from Bréville les Monts.

At 09.00 one battalion of the 857th Grenadierregiment had crossed the drop zone and approached the positions of the 5th Parachute Brigade, whose two forward units, the 7th Parachute Battalion and the 13th Parachute Battalion, held their fire until the Germans were only 50 yards (46 m) away: the few survivors of the onslaught escaped into the nearby woods.

Early on 10 June another group, this time of 31 men, reached the 9th Parachute Battalion’s position. These and other stragglers, who had arrived through the night, increased the battalion’s strength to some 270 men. At 11.00 the Germans attacked A Company once again, but this time the attack was poorly co-ordinated and easily repelled. Shortly after this, the battalion killed some 50 Germans who had started digging defences in full view of the British position. Then A Company ambushed a German patrol, causing several casualties. That afternoon a strong force of Germans occupied the château and used it as a base to start an assault by infantry and self-propelled guns on the British battalion. With no mortar ammunition left, the British had to use their PIAT anti-tank weapons and machine guns to stop the attack.

The next German attack was made in greater force, using the 2/857th Grenadierregiment, the 1 and 2/858th Grenadierregiment and several companies of the 744th Grenadierregiment with tank and armoured car support. The attack sought to force a gap in the British line between the commandos and the 3rd Parachute Brigade and thereby reach Ranville. Two infantry companies attacked the positions of the 9th Parachute Battalion’s B Company. This assault was more determined, and even the naval gunfire support of the light cruiser Arethusa's 6-in (152.4-mm) guns failed to stop the attack. When the Germans reached the British position a hand-to-hand fight ensued, during which most of the Germans were killed. One of the prisoners taken was the commander of the 2/857th Grenadierregiment, who told his captors that '[his] regiment had been destroyed in the fighting against the airborne division'. The rest of the German assault came up against the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion, and was stopped by an artillery bombardment; two later attacks on the Canadians suffered the same fate. Later, at 23.00. C Company of the 9th Parachute Battalion fought its way to and occupied the château, and fought off several small attacks throughout the night.

With his two parachute brigades and the commando brigade heavily engaged, Gale contacted Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps for armour support. Gale had decided to clear the woods at Le Mariquet, a task which was allocated to the 7th Parachute Battalion and B Squadron of 13th/18th Royal Hussars. The tanks would advance over the open ground, their only cover being crashed gliders, and A and B Companies would meanwhile clear the woods. In the fighting the only British casualties were 10 paratroops wounded, but eight men of the Hussars were killed and four Sherman medium and two Stuart light tanks were destroyed. The 857th Grenadierregiment lost 20 men killed and 100 taken prisoner, and was driven out of the wood.

The German attacks convinced Crocker to reinforce the 6th Airborne Division, and Major General D. C. Bullen-Smith’s 51st Division was ordered to take over the southern sector of the Orne river bridgehead. At the same time, the 5/Black Watch was attached to the 3rd Parachute Brigade. The Black Watch battalion was informed to prepare for an assault to capture Bréville les Monts and formed to the rear of the 9th Parachute Battalion in preparation for an attack on the next day.

On 11 June, the 5/Black Watch was to attack Bréville les Monts from the south-west, but before the attack the battalion sent one company to take over the defence of the château. At 04.30, supported by the guns and mortars of the airborne and highland divisions, the attack began. To reach Bréville les Monts, the battalion had to cross 250 yards (230 m) of open ground, and as as it neared the village the British artillery ceased fire. The Germans then opened fire with their own artillery, mortars and machine guns. One company was completely destroyed by the German machine gun fire as it advanced over the open ground. Met with concentrated fire of such weight, the battalion suffered 200 casualties and its attack failed. The survivors retreated to the château, but were immediately counterattacked by the 3/858th Grenadierregiment, which itself suffered heavy losses.

That afternoon three troops of tanks from the 13th/18th Royal Hussars were sent to reinforce the 5/Black Watch, but had only just started to move toward the château when three of the tanks were destroyed by hidden German self-propelled guns. Unable to deploy in the wooded ground around the château, the other tanks were withdrawn. The rest of the day and night passed without another attack, but the Germans sent out reconnaissance patrols to establish the exact location of the British positions and German armoured vehicles could be heard moving up to the front during the night.

At 12.00 on 12 June the entirety of the 3rd Parachute Brigade’s position came under artillery and mortar fire before a major attack scheduled to start at 15.00. A German battalion attacked the Canadian 1st Parachute Battalion, and another, supported by six tanks and self-propelled guns, attacked the 9th Parachute Battalion and the 5/Black Watch. The battle for the château cost the 5/Black Watch nine Bren Gun Carriers and destroyed all its anti-tank guns. Unable to resist the battalion was compelled to pull back to the Bois de Mont, joining the 9th Parachute Battalion, which was being attacked by the German armoured vehicles. One tank in front of B Company was hit by two PIAT rounds, but remained in action and destroyed two of B Company’s machine gun positions before it was hit by a third anti-tank projectile and withdrew. The attack killed or wounded the last men in the Machine-Gun Platoon, and the Anti-Tank Platoon was reduced to one PIAT detachment. It seemed likely that the German infantry would overrun the battalion, and Otway contacted brigade headquarters to report that the battalion would not be able to hold out much longer. Hill personally led a counterattack by 40 men from the Canadian battalion, and this drove off the Germans. By 20.00 the area defended by the two battalions had been cleared of all opposition and the front line restored.

Gale concluded that to relieve the pressure on the division Bréville les Monts had to be taken. The only units available for the attack were the divisional reserve (350 men of the 12th Parachute Battalion), and D Company of the 12/Devonshire Regiment (86 men). Another unit, the 22nd Independent Parachute Company, the division’s pathfinders, was to stand by and respond to any German counterattack. To provide fire support, Gale was given a squadron of M4 Sherman tanks from the 13th/18th Royal Hussars, three 2-pdr field artillery regiments, one medium artillery regiment of 5.5-in (139.7-mm) guns, and the division’s own artillery, the 53rd (Worcester Yeomanry) Air-Landing Light Regiment. The attack on Bréville les Monts was to start at 22.00, and was timed to catch the Germans tired and off-guard following the day’s fighting. The start line was on the outskirts of Amfreville, which had already been secured by No. 6 Commando. Lieutenant Colonel Johnny Johnson of the 12th Parachute Battalion was in command of the assault. He decided his own C Company would secure the first crossroads; then the Devonshire company would take the north of the village. At the same time A Company would advance through C Company and secure the south-east. At the rear would be B Company, the battalion reserve. The attack had to cross 400 yards (365 m) of open ground to reach the village. To support the assault and destroy a German position 200 yards (185 m) from the start line, a troop of Sherman tanks would accompany the infantrymen.

At 21.50 the British artillery opened fire, and the Germans responded with their own artillery and mortars, which forced most of the British to take cover for the next 15 minutes, until a lull in the German fire allowed them to continue. In the lead, C Company had crossed the start line at 22.00, but all its officers and the company sergeant major became casualties, and the senior surviving non-commissioned officer assumed command of the company, which continued to advance through the artillery and mortar bombardment, guided toward its objective by tracer rounds from the hussars' tanks. Repeatedly hit by the artillery and tanks, Bréville les Monts was in flames by the time the company’s 15 survivors reached the village.

The battalion’s A Company suffered a similar fate: the officer commanding was wounded crossing the start line, and at the same time every member of the 2nd Platoon was killed or wounded. The company sergeant major assumed command but was killed when the company reached Bréville les Monts. The company second in command, who had been bringing up the rear, reached the village and found that the 3rd Platoon only had nine men left, but they had managed to clear the village’s château and the 1st Platoon had cleared its grounds.

The Devonshire company was moving towards Amfreville when an artillery round landed in it and wounded several men. As they crossed the start line another shell landed nearby killing Johnson and their company commander, Major Bampfylde, and wounding the Lord Lovat of the commando brigade and Kindersley of 6th Air-Landing Brigade, who were observing the attack. Colonel Reginald Parker, deputy commander of 6th Air-Landing Brigade and a former commanding officer of the 12th Parachute Battalion, had been wounded by the same shell but went forward to take over command.

By 22.45 the crossroads had been secured by what remained of C Company, and the 18 survivors of A Company were in among the south-eastern buildings of Bréville les Monts. In the north-east of the village the 20 survivors of the Devonshire company had captured their objective. The shelling had stopped when B Company reached the village unopposed and occupied abandoned German trenches beside the church. Fearing a German counterattack on his weakened battalion, Parker ordered a defensive artillery bombardment. However, there was a misunderstanding when the order reached the artillery and a heavy bombardment landed on the British positions in the village, causing several casualties including three of the surviving officers.

At 02.00 on 13 June the 13th/18th Royal Hussars' squadron arrived at C Company’s position at the crossroads, later followed by 51 men of the 22nd Independent Parachute Company. Bréville les Monts was now in British hands again for the third time since the landings on 6 June, but there were too few men to defend against a German counterattack, so the 1/Royal Ulster Rifles, part of the 6th Air-Landing Brigade, was moved into the village to take over from the survivors of the attack.

The final attack had cost the 12th Parachute Battalion 126 men killed, and left its three infantry companies with only 35 men between them. The company of the 12/Devonshire Regiment had lost 36 men killed. Amongst the casualties was every officer and warrant officer either killed or wounded. The German defenders of the 3/858th Grenadierregiment, which had numbered 564 men before the British assault, totalled just 146 men by the time the village had been captured.

However the left flank of the invasion zone was now secure. On 13 June the 51st Division took over responsibility for the southern sector of the Orne river bridgehead, releasing the 6th Air-Landing Brigade to strengthen the 6th Airborne Division’s position along the ridge line. The next two months was a period of static warfare until 17 August, when the division crossed the Dives river and advanced to the north along the French coast. By 26 August the division had reached Honfleur at the mouth of the Seine river, capturing more than 1,000 men and liberating some 390 s miles (1000 km²) of France.

The 'Battle of Bréville les Monts' has been claimed as 'one of the most important battles of the invasion' for, in the event that the division had lost the battle, the Germans would have been in a position to attack the landing beaches. But after the battle the Germans never again attempted a serious attack on the division.