This was a British diversionary offensive in support of ‘Epsom’ by Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s XXX Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army in Normandy, and was otherwise known as ‘Martlet’ (25 June/1 July 1944).
‘Epsom’ was the first major offensive planned by the 2nd Army after this formation had secured its lodgement in Normandy within ‘Overlord’, and was schemed for the Odon sector of the battlefield to the west of Caen using both the XXX Corps and Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s VIII Corps. While the former had landed on D-Day and been involved in heavy fighting since that day, the latter was only recently arrived from England and yet seen no combat.
The VIII Corps comprised Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division, Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s 15th Division and Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division, and as these still lacked certain of their components the corps was strengthened by the addition of Brigadier G. S. Knight’s 31st Tank Brigade and Brigadier J. C. Currie’s 4th Armoured Brigade, increasing its tank strength to more than 600. The VIII Corps thus had a total strength of some 60,000 men, and while its organic artillery numbered nearly 300 guns, the support of the XXX Corps on its right and Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps on its left increased the total for support to more than 700 pieces of artillery, which were supplemented by the medium and heavy firepower of three cruisers and the monitor Roberts respectively. Substantial air support was also provided, this including strong fighter cover and bombing attacks on the Germans’ flanking positions as well as their rear.
In preparation for ‘Epsom’, ‘Dauntless’ was designed to secure the area of Noyers and protect the VIII Corps’ right flank. The first objective was the capture on 25 June of Rauray, on the spur of high ground overlooking the country through which the VIII Corps was to begin the main attack south on the following morning and secure the line between Rauray, Vendes and Juvigny. This task was the responsibility of Major General E. H. Barker’s 49th Division of the XXX Corps, and this first success, it was hoped, would then be exploited well to the south.
Starting from the front held by Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division of Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps between Bronay and Bretteville l’Orgueilleuse, and protected at first by the XXX Corps on its right, the VIII Corps was to force the crossings of the Odon river and then of the Orne river, and after that to establish itself on the high ground to the north-east of Bretteville sur Laize, where it would command the roads converging on Caen from the south. As its advance progressed, its eastern flank would be secured by the I Corps’ capture of Carpiquet.
The forthcoming battle was very strongly influenced by the terrain over which it was to be fought. This was some of the best farmland of Normandy. Close to the British start line was an area of wide and hedge-free fields of standing corn, sloping gently slowly to the Mue river, itself little more than a stream. Thence to the south the terrain was of the bocage type, with small farms and orchards enclosed by dense, steeply banked hedges, villages sunk into the hill sides, and the whole area interspersed with woods and coppices. From the south-west a ridge of higher ground extends across the battlefield with spurs running north toward Fontenay le Pesnel and Rauray on the front of the XXX Corps and toward le Haut du Bosq with a final hump to the south-east of Cheux on the front of the VIII Corps. This ridge conceals the ground beyond, which falls to the thickly wooded valley of the Odon river before rising once more to commanding hills south of this river.
The main roads, railway and the Odon river extend in the same direction between Villers Bocage and Caen.
It is difficult country through which to plan an offensive, and its broken contours and abundance of cover made it at the time an almost perfect area for the defence. SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Meyer’s 12th SS Panzer Division ‘Hitlerjugend’ and parts of Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision and Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz’s Panzer-Lehr-Division had been holding this sector for nearly three weeks, and had a full appreciation of the terrain’s defensive advantages. The German infantry and machine gun positions had been chosen with great skill, and strengthened with wire entanglements ands minefields, and each major defensive position was supported by two or three armoured fighting vehicles and 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-role anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns sited in hidden positions but able to move to other positions if detected.
If the VIII Corps had been allocated a difficult task for its first operation, so too had the XXX Corps as revealed by its experiences during its preliminary attack on 25 June. The task of capturing Juvigny, Vendes and Rauray had been allocated by the XXX Corps to the 49th Division, a formation which would be making its combat debut. An additional regiment of field guns and a battery of self-propelled anti-tank guns had been added to its artillery, and for this first day it could also call on the additional support from the VIII Corps, to its left, of five regiments of field artillery and part of two anti-aircraft brigades operating in the ground role.
The front to be attacked was held by the right of Panzer-Lehr-Division and the left of the 12th SS Panzerdivision, with between 60 and 80 88-mm (3.465-in) guns of General Wolfgang Pickert’s III Flakkorps in support. The units tackled most directly by the 49th Division were the 3/26th Panzergrenadierregiment and part of the 12th SS Panzerregiment of the 12th SS Panzerdivision. The German units had seen considerable combat in the period before the launch of ‘Dauntless’, but were still full of fight and in possession of well-prepared and carefully-sited defensive positions.
At 04.15 on the morning of 25 June, in a thick ground mist that lasted for some hours and prevented the RAF from flying all but a very few close support sorties, the 49th Division began its offensive. The operation started with a heavy artillery bombardment that fell on the German positions just ahead of the start line of the 49th Division. At 05.00 this bombardment started to creep forward with the infantry in its wake.
The 49th Division advanced on a two-brigade front, with Brigadier J. F. Walker’s 146th and Brigadier E. R. Mahony’s British 147th Brigades on the right and left respectively. In support were the division’s third organic unit, Brigadier E. C. Cooke-Collis’s 70th Brigade, as well as the armour of Brigadier H. F. S. Cracroft’s 8th Armoured Brigade. By 09.15 the 146th Brigade, attacking with two battalions, had captured Bas de Fontenay against stiff opposition and by a time early in the afternoon had reached the edge of the woods on the spur north of Vendes.
Meanwhile the 147th Brigade on the left, attacking with only one battalion, found that the larger village of Fontenay was strongly defended and, in a hard-fought and costly little action, failed to progress past the village’s northern outskirts. For unexplained reasons a second battalion was not sent forward to strengthen the attack until 21.00. The British then took most of the straggling village, but this was still not wholly cleared and the fighting continued throughout the night.
In overall terms, with strong air as well as artillery support the 49th Division managed to open a gap in the German line 3.1 miles (5 km) wide and 1.25 miles (2 km) deep. But the Rauray spur on the flank of the VIII Corps was still in German hands when this corps attacked during the morning of 26 June. On this day the weather conditions in southern England were so bad that it was impossible to provide air support for this opening phase of ‘Epsom’ (1st Battle of the Odon): for the first time since the start of ‘Overlord’, almost no England-based aircraft were able to take-off. Thus only Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s No. 83 Group, now located on Normandy airstrips, was available to support the VIII Corps, and though the aircraft of this group flew more than 500 sorties, their effort was very adversely affected by low cloud and the continuing heavy ground mist.
During the first hours of ‘Dauntless’, the ground mist was thick enough to be a major problem to visibility, and the assaulting battalions became lost. The Hallamshire Battalion/York and Lancaster Regiment of 146th Brigade found itself on the road linking Fontenay and Tessel Bretteville and came under fire from elements of the Panzer-Lehr-Division. The battalion eventually found its way back to Fontenay. Meanwhile, the 11/Royal Scots Fusiliers of the 147th Brigade eventually pushed forward through the mist and began attacking Fontenay le Pesnel. The village was strongly defended by the 3/26th SS Panzergrenadierregiment, and heavy but inconclusive fighting raged throughout the morning before the British were eventually forced to withdraw to the northern outskirts of the village and await reinforcements. Confused fighting raged along the Rauray spur.
By the afternoon, the situation was starting to become clearer. The 146th Brigade had successfully reached its objective line at the woods near Vendes, but when the 1/4th King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry attempted to push beyond to the Tessel-Bretteville wood, it came under withering machine gun fire and was forced to dig in. On the right, it was almost nightfall before reinforcements came to the 11/Royal Scots Fusiliers in Fontenay, in the shape of the 7/Duke of Wellington’s Regiment, which managed to clear most of the village by the middle of the night.
As the fighting drew to a close at about 24.00 on 25/26 June, the 49th Division had established a line approximately to the south of Fontenay le Pesnel. Rauray and about half of the eponymous spur remained in German hands. Despite the fact that it had not secured the flank of VIII Corps in time for ‘Epsom’, the division prepared to continue its offensive on the following day.
At 05.30 on 26 June, the 70th Infantry Brigade and 8th Armoured Brigade led the 49th Division’s renewed offensive. A battle group of the 24th Lancers and the 12 (Motorised)/King’s Royal Rifle Corps penetrated Tessel-Bretteville but was pulled back during the afternoon as the troops on its right had failed to advance much beyond their start lines. The front then stabilised once again.
During the night, two companies from the 2/192nd Panzergrenadierregiment of the 21st Panzerdivision came up to bolster the defences of the Panzer-Lehr-Division near Vendes, which remained in German hands for the duration of the operation. The Panzer-Lehr-Division had been briefly engaged against elements of 146th Brigade but in the main was still concentrated against Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division on the 49th Division’s right flank.
On 27 June, the 49th Division continued to attack. The 146th Brigade captured the Tessel-Bretteville wood but could not advance past it. The task force of the 70th Brigade and 8th Armoured Brigade had greater success, drove rapidly to the south and infiltrated Rauray. There was heavy fighting throughout the day, but by the fall of night the village was in British hands. The 70th Brigade prepared to continue its advance to the south on the following day.
On the morning of 28 June, 1/Tyneside Scottish of the 70th Brigade began to infiltrate into Brettevillette, to the south of Rauray. By the afternoon, though, the German pressure on this exposed position had increased as elements of SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Weidinger’s Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’ of SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’ was hastily committed to the Odon river front in order to gain time for the imminent arrival of SS-Obergruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps. The British were ejected from Brettevillete and formed a new defensive line around Rauray. The spur was in British hands and 49th Division prepared to defend it.
On 29/30 June, the 49th Division remained in this defensive position around Rauray, being sporadically shelled and fired at by the Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’. The main attack by II SS Panzerkorps was in fact made farther to the south, so the 49th Division’s front was largely quiet except for the activities of continued German and British reconnaissance patrols.
At 06.00 on 1 July, the Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’ began an assault against Rauray. Supported by armour, it drove straight on the village, isolating the 1/Tyneside Scottish to the south. There was sharp fighting round Rauray as the 11/Durham Light Infantry and 1/Tyneside Scottish of the 70th Brigade attempted to check and then repulse the Germans. At about 10.00 the Germans began to withdraw, and the British began to prepare to follow this withdrawal, but at 11.00 a renewed assault was launched against the village by the Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’. Once again, this failed to breach the British line. A final attack, launched at about 12.00 by SS-Standartenführer Thomas Müller’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ to the south, again made little progress in four hours of fighting. By 18.00 the Germans had withdrawn for the last time.
The 70th Brigade had been hit hard, the 1/Tyneside Scottish in particular losing 132 men alone on this day. The line had been held, however, and the Odon bridgehead was now largely secure.
The 49th Division now remained in its line round Rauray for almost a month, being involved largely in defensive fighting with the the sole exception of a diversionary offensive action round Juvigny during the 2nd Battle of the Odon as part of the undertaking to take Caen on 15 July. On 30 July the division was transferred from the XXX Corps to the I Corps, and moved to a position in the bridgehead to the east of the Orne river, from which it eventually began a successful drive to the Seine river.
Severely battered in ‘Epsom’, the 12th SS Panzerdivision continued to fight against further British offensives at Carpiquet airfield (‘Windsor’), Caen (‘Charnwood’) and ‘Goodwood’. The German division settled in a position to the south-east of Caen in the middle of July, from where it was gradually forced back by continued Anglo-Canadian offensives. The 9th SS Panzerdivision remained in the Odon river valley, holding Hill 112 against Major General G. I. Thomas’s 43rd Division during ‘Jupiter’. This division too was eventually pushed back into the Falaise pocket.
It is worth noting that more fighting was taking place farther to the east over this period in further preparation for ‘Epsom’. It was at 07.30 on 26 June that Major General G. H. A. MacMillan’s 15th Division of O’Connor’s VIII Corps moved off to capture the bridges over the Odon river, some 5 miles (8 km) distant to the south, so that Major General G. P. B. Roberts’s 11th Armoured Division could then pass through the infantry division, cross the bridges, and advance to seize other bridges over the Orne river and so open the way to high ground to the south of Caen.
It had rained heavily during the night of 25/26 June, and the sodden ground made the going heavy. Brigadier H. D. K. Money’s 44th Brigade was on the left and Brigadier C. M. Barber’s 46th Brigade on the right, and these two brigades moved forward behind a powerful moving barrage with the support of Brigadier T. R. Price’s 31st Tank Brigade.
The 15th Division initially made steady progress but, as the barrage moved on, the defenders emerged from well dug-in German positions and started to fire on the advancing Scottish infantry. The delay inevitable in clearing this first line of Germans defences meant that the infantry fell behind the moving barrage. The infantry took fairly heavy losses at this stage of its advance, especially as it neared the villages in which the Germans had created their more potent strongpoints.
The 15th Division took La Gaule after a sharp fight, but entered St Mauvieu, Cheux and Le Haut du Bosq only in hand-to-hand fighting. It then took some time to overcome all the German parties which held out to the last in ruined buildings, farmyards and orchards. After its capture, St Mauvieu was twice counterattacked by tanks and infantry of the 12th SS Panzerdivision and a tank company of the 21st Panzerdivision, but both of these counterattacks were beaten off, largely by intensive artillery fire. The 2/Glasgow Highlanders of the 46th Brigade, occupying Cheux, came under persistent artillery and mortar fire from the high ground to their south, and the village was soon a mess of debris and rubble. In its first day of war, the battalion lost 12 officers and almost 200 other ranks.
Only the northern outskirts of the long straggling village of Le Haut du Bosq were taken, the rest of the village, the wooded land on each side, and the higher ground to the south remaining in the hands of the Germans, whose defence was based on dug-in tanks and infantry strongpoints covered by machine guns, mortars and minefields.
Soon after 12.00 the 11th Armoured Division, moving forward in the wake of the 15th Division, was instructed to advance to Tourmauville and Gavrus, where there were bridges over the Odon river. Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey’s 29th Armoured Brigade soon discovered that all its efforts to deploy to the south of Cheux elicited determined opposition, and following several hours of costly but also unsuccessful fighting it became clear that the Odon bridges could not be rushed by tanks that night. At 18.00 the 15th Division was thus ordered to resume the advance, and its third organic unit, Brigadier J. R. Mackintosh-Walker’s 227th Brigade, moved up.
The British progress was painfully slow, and much time and many men were lost during the day as result of the frequent delays in the movement of men and vehicles through the chokepoint of Cheux’s ruins, where many tracks and roads converged, and which was an obvious target for the German guns and mortars located in the hills to the south. But the only two roads to the Tourmauville and Gavrus bridges radiated from Cheux. That on the east crossed a dip in the ridge to Colleville and continued to the bridge near Tourmauville, while that on the west passed over the ridge to Grainville sur Odon and continued past Le Valtru to the two bridges near Gavrus.
The brigade’s leading battalions started from Cheux by both roads at about 18.00 and in very heavy rain. On the eastern road the advance guard reached the outskirts of Colleville but the main body was held up near the Salbey stream, about 1 mile (1.6 km) to the south of Cheux, and could proceed no farther that night. On the western road only the ground skirting Cheux was reached, and the infantry and supporting tanks were then embroiled in confused fighting, both there and round Le Haut du Bosq. In the fading light and a deluge of rain, there was not enough time left to expel the Germans from their strong position on the ridge over which the road to Grainville climbed.
Farther to the west, the XXX Corps had fought right through the day to take the Rauray spur, but the main artillery support was being given to the attack on their left and though they fought hard and had heavy casualties they had captured only the northern part of it. From this time onward, the battle was ‘Epsom’ proper.