Operation Bluecoat

'Bluecoat' was a British operation to drive to the south from the lodgement of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group in Normandy to take Caumont and Mont Pinçon (30 July/7 August 1944).

The geographical objectives of 'Bluecoat' were the seizure of the road junction at Vire and the high ground of Mont Pinçon, and the operation was undertaken by Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s British VIII Corps and Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s (from 4 August Lieutenant General B. G. Horrocks’s) British XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army. 'Bluecoat' was planned and executed at short notice to exploit the success of 'Cobra' by Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army after it had broken out on the western flank of the Normandy lodgement secured in 'Overlord' and to exploit the withdrawal of Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzerdivision from the area of Caumont for commitment in the 'Lüttich' counter-offensive against the US forces.

Between 18 and 20 July, the British 2nd Army fought 'Goodwood' (iii) on the eastern flank of the Allied lodgement to the south-east of Caen, in a southerly direction, and this had forced the Germans to keep the bulk of their armoured formations around Caen outside the eastern part of the Allied lodgement. After 'Goodwood' (iii), 'Ultra' intelligence revealed that the Germans planned to withdraw Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision into reserve, before sending it to the west against the US sector of the Allied lodgement. On 25 July, after a false start one day earlier, the US 1st Army began 'Cobra'. Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s (from 4 August Major General G. L. Verney’s) 7th Armoured Division, Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division and Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division were moved to the west toward Caumont on the XXX Corps' western flank. Dempsey planned to attack on 2 August but the speed of events forced him to bring the start forward.

On the German side, the area involved in 'Bluecoat' was that of Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann’s 7th Army. From 21 July the 2nd Panzerdivision had been withdrawn from the area to the south of Caumont and relieved by Generalleutnant Viktor von Drabich-Wächter’s (from 2 August Oberst Kretsch’s) 326th Division, which assumed control of a 10-mile (16-km) sector of the front from a point to the east of Villers Bocage westward to the Drôme river, which was the boundary between General Erich Strauber’s LXXIV Corps of General Heinrich Eberbach’s Panzergruppe 'West' and the 7th Army. Operating to the south and east of Caumont, the 326th Division was up to strength and took over a large number of field defences and camouflaged firing positions located behind extensive minefields in the ideal defensive terrain of the Norman bocage.

The British plan was for the XXX Corps to spearhead the attack with Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division advancing to the top of Bois du Homme (Point 361). The left flank was to be protected by Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division with the 7th Armoured Division in reserve. On the right, the western flank, the XXX Corps was to be protected by the VIII Corps, with Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s (from 3 August Major General C. M. Barber’s) 15th Division attacking to the south from Caumont and the 11th Armoured Division attacking across country farther to the west, ready to exploit any German collapse by advancing toward Petit Aunay, 3.7 miles (6 km) to the west of St Martin des Besaces.

A raid by more than 1,000 bombers rather than an artillery bombardment was organised as the preparation for the attack. Visibility was poor but the bombers nonetheless placed 2,000 tons of bobs with accuracy. Damage to German weapons and equipment was slight, partly because there was little of it in the target areas and because the 43rd and 50th Divisions were held just beyond the start line, well to the north of the target areas in their sector.

The advance of the 11th Armoured Division’s left-flank units through 'Area A' made rapid progress. Many other British units were delayed by minefields, sunken roads, thick hedges and steep gullies, but in the centre the attackers advanced 5 miles (8 km). On 31 July, the 11th Armoured Division exploited a German inter-army boundary weakness, when it discovered that 'Dickie’s Bridge', across the Souleuvre river some 5 miles (8 km) behind the German front, was undefended. Reinforcing the opportunity quickly with Cromwell cruiser tanks followed by further support units, the 11th Armoured Division broke up the first counterattacking German armoured units. By 2 August the British forces had advanced to within 5 miles (8 km) of Vire, which was on the US side of the army boundary. There was confusion as to who had the rights to use certain roads, and the British attack was restricted and diverted to the south-east. The 7th Army was able to reinforce the town with elements of Generalleutnant Dipl. Ing. Richard Schimpf’s 3rd Fallschirmjägerdivision that was being forced to the south by the US V Corps and to move elements of SS-Oberführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Bock’s 9th SS Panzerdivision 'Hohenstaufen' to the south-west in order to close the gap between the 7th Army and the Panzergruppe 'West'.

The British advance was checked by the arrival of these German reinforcements. The VIII Corps also had to protect its eastern flank as the XXX Corps had not kept up the same rate of advance. Bucknall was dismissed on 2 August and Erskine, the commander of the 7th Armoured Division, followed on the next day. Horrocks, a veteran of the North African campaign, replaced Bucknall on 4 August. The 2nd Army’s advance was brought to a temporary halt on 4 August. Vire fell to a US night attack by the 116th Infantry of Major General Charles H. Gerhardt’s US 29th Division against Generalleutnant August Dettling’s 363rd Division on 6 August. On the same day, the 43rd Division and tanks of the 13th/18th Royal Hussars captured Mont Pinçon.

'Bluecoat' had kept German armoured units fixed on the British eastern front and continued the wearing down of the strength of German armoured formations in the area. The breakthrough in the centre of the Allied front surprised the Germans, when they were distracted by the Allied attacks at both ends of the Normandy lodgement. By the time of the US 'Cobra' break-out past Avranches, there was little to no reserve strength left for the implementation of the German 'Lüttich' counter-offensive, which had been defeated by 12 August. The 7th Army had no option but to retire rapidly to the area to the east of the Orne river, covered by a rearguard by all the remaining armoured and motorised units to allow time for the surviving infantry to reach the line of the Seine river. After the first stage of the withdrawal beyond the Orne, the manoeuvre collapsed for a lack of fuel, Allied air attacks and the constant pressure of the Allied armies, culminating in the encirclement of many German forces in the Falaise pocket.

During 'Bluecoat' and later operations in Normandy, VIII Corps suffered 5,114 casualties.

With news from the US sector by 9 August that 'Lüttich' had been defeated, O’Connor planned a new attack either to pin the German defenders opposite the VIII Corps or to precipitate a collapse. This was 'Grouse'.