This was a British offensive in the Normandy lodgement area of ‘Overlord’ by Lieutenant General Sir Richard O’Connor’s newly arrived VIII Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army (26 June/1 July 1944).
Otherwise known as the 1st Battle of the Odon, the offensive was directed toward Evrecy, south of Caen, with the object of preventing the arrival and deployment of German armour reinforcements and thus facilitating the capture of Caen. The VIII Corps numbered some 60,000 men, 600 tanks and 700 pieces of artillery in 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. The two infantry divisions were each strengthened with a brigade of Churchill infantry tanks, but lacked combat experience. The VIII Corps was flanked on its left and right by Lieutenant General G. G. Simonds’s Canadian II Corps and Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s British XXX Corps respectively.
The plan of the VIII Corps, deploying its two armour-strengthened infantry divisions in the lead for the breakthrough and its armoured division to provide extra weight and to exploit the breakthrough once this had been achieved, was to skirt round the western side of Caen, where the British forces had experienced great difficulty in using tanks, to drive south across the road linking Caen and Bayeux and then to the Fossé de l’Odon, and then to wheel to south-east in the direction of Bretteville sur Laize some 10 miles (16 km) to the south of Caen, having taken Carpiquet airfield (much needed by the tactical support squadrons of Air Marshal Sir Arthur Coningham’s 2nd Tactical Air Force) and opened the way for the capture of Caen.
The highly capable opposition was found by three SS Panzer divisions, namely SS-Oberführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Thomas Müller’s 9th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hohenstaufen’ and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Heinz Harmel’s 10th SS Panzerdivision ‘Frundsberg’ of SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Paul Hausser’s II SS Panzerkorps (from 29 June SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Wilhelm Bittrich’s) recently arrived from Ukraine, and SS-Brigadeführer und Generalmajor der Waffen-SS Kurt Mayer’s 12th SS Panzerdivision ‘Hitlerjugend’ of SS-Obergruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps.
Caen had been the primary objective of Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 3rd Division on 6 June, the day of the ‘Overlord’ landings. This division had landed on Sword Beach as the spearhead of Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s British I Corps of Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s British 2nd Army, which was to secure a front line from Caumont l’Eventé to a point to the south-east of Caen, thereby securing airfields and shielding the left flank of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army as it moved against Cherbourg on the north coast of the Cotentin peninsula. Possession of Caen and its surroundings would also provide the 2nd Army with a concentration area suitable for the launch of a southward drive to take Falaise, which could then become the pivot for a wheel west with the object of taking Argentan and reaching the Touques river.
Hampered by congestion in the beach-head, which delayed the deployment of Brigadier G. E. Prior-Palmer’s British 27th Armoured Brigade, the division’s armoured support, and forced to divert effort to attacking strongly held German positions along the 9.3-mile (15-km) route to the town, the 3rd Division had found it impossible to assault Caen in force, and was brought to a halt short of the city’s outskirts by Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision. Immediate follow-up attacks had also proved unsuccessful as German resistance strengthened.
With the direct assault now deemed impractical, the 2nd Army had launched ‘Perch’ as a pincer attack by the I Corps and G. C. Bucknall’s XXX Corps, during 7 June with the object of encircling Caen from the east and west. The I Corps, striking to the south out of the Orne river bridgehead, had been halted by the 21st Panzerdivision, and the XXX Corps’ attack had been halted in front of Tilly sur Seulles, to the west of Caen, by the determined opposition of Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s (from 8 June Generalmajor Hyazinth Graf Strachwitz von Gross-Zauche und Camminetz’s) Panzer-Lehr-Division. In an effort to force the latter to pull back or surrender, and to keep ‘Perch’ moving, Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s British 7th Armoured Division had been pushed through a gap recently punched through the German front line with the object of taking Villers Bocage. The resulting day-long battle had witnessed the withdrawal of the 7th Armoured Division’s vanguard from the town, but by 17 June the Panzer-Lehr-Division had also been forced back and the XXX Corps had taken Tilly sur Seulles.
Another attack by the 7th Armoured Division had not taken place, and further offensive operations had been abandoned when, on 19 June, a severe three-day storm had struck the English Channel, in the process significantly delaying the Allied build-up: most of the landing craft and ship convoys already at sea had been forced back to ports along the south coast of England, towed barges and other loads had been lost, and some 800 craft had been left stranded on the Normandy beaches until the next spring tides in July.
Despite this setback, the 2nd Army had started to plan a second offensive as ‘Dreadnought’, which was to be launched out of the Orne bridgehead by the newly arrived VIII Corps to outflank Caen from the east. The operation had then been cancelled as a result of O’Connor’s objections, and the planners had then started to consider an offensive toward Evrecy. There is some argument as to whether it was General Sir Bernard Montgomery or Dempsey, commanding the Allied 21st Army Group and the 2nd Army respectively, who cancelled the operation.
The weather from 19 to 22 June also grounded Allied aircraft, and this break gave the Germans the opportunity to improve their defences: the infantry positions were strengthened with minefields, and about 70 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose anti-aircraft and anti-tank guns were positioned in hedgerows and woods to cover the southern approaches to Caen.
On 20 June Adolf Hitler ordered Generalfeldmarschall Erwin Rommel, commanding Heeresgruppe ‘B’, to launch a counteroffensive against the Allied lines between the towns of Caumont and St Lô with the object of cutting a corridor between the US and British armies of the 21st Army Group by recapturing the city of Bayeux, which had been taken by the British on 7 June, and the coast beyond. One army and four Waffen-SS Panzer divisions were assigned this task, which was to be spearheaded by the 9th SS Panzerdivision and 10th SS Panzerdivision, supported by Dietrich’s 1st SS Panzerdivision ‘Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler’ and SS-Gruppenführer und Generalleutnant der Waffen-SS Heinz Lammerding’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’, as well as Generalleutnant Hans-Karl von Esebeck’s 2nd Panzerdivision. The bulk of the armour used by these formations was the obsolescent PzKpfw IV battle tank, supplemented by smaller number of assault guns, PzKpfw V Panther battle tanks and PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks.
On 18 June Montgomery, as overall commander of all Allied ground forces in Normandy, instructed Dempsey to capture Caen with a new pincer attack. The initial plan called for the I and XXX Corps to attack in the area to the west of Caen over four-day period before the VIII Corps launched the main attack out of the Orne river bridgehead, to the east of Caen, on 22 June. It was soon realised that the VIII Corps would not be able to assemble its strength within the small perimeter of the Orne river bridgehead, however, and the plan was revised on 19 June. The new plan called for a preliminary operation three days before the main assault: in this, Major General D. C. Bullen-Smith’s 51st Division of the I Corps was to strike to the south out of the Orne river bridgehead, pinning elements of the 21st Panzerdivision. Another subsidiary operation, ‘Martlet’ also known as ‘Dauntless’, was to start on the day before ‘Epsom’, and in this Major General E. H. Barker’s 49th Division of the XXX Corps, supported by Brigadier H. F. S. Cracroft’s 8th Armoured Brigade, was to secure VIII Corps’ flank by capturing the high ground on the right of the axis of advance.
The main task in ‘Epsom’ was assigned to O’Connor’s VIII Corps. This formation was to launch its offensive from the beach-head perimeter which had been won by Major General R. F. L. Keller’s Canadian 3rd Division in ‘Overlord’. Planned as a four-stage operation, ‘Epsom’ was intended to take the high ground near Bretteville sur Laize, in the area to the south of Caen. The operation was to be supported by the fire of 736 pieces of artillery as well as the guns of three cruisers and the 15-in (381-mm) guns of the monitor Roberts. The RAF would additionally provide close air support and a preliminary bombardment by 250 bombers.
The 15th Division was to lead the assault and, in the ‘Gout’ first phase of the operation, was tasked with the capture of the villages of Ste Manvieu and Cheux. In the ‘Hangover’ second phase, the division was to exploit to the south in order to take several crossings over the Odon river, as well as the villages of Mouen and Grainville sur Odon. As a tactical alternative, for implementation in the event that German resistance during the opening phase proved light, the 11th Armoured Division was to rush the bridges over the Odon river. During these first two phases, the 43rd Division, which was to be reinforced on 28 June by Brigadier G. F. Johnson’s 32nd Guards Brigade of Major General A. H. S. Adair’s Guards Armoured Division, was to remain on the start line to provide a ‘firm base’. In the operation’s ‘Impetigo’ third phase, the 43rd Division was to move forward to relieve all the Scottish infantry battalions of the 15th Division to the north of the Odon, and the 15th Division was then to assemble across the river, expanding the bridgehead by capturing several key villages. In the ‘Goitre’ fourth and final phase, elements of the 43rd Division were to cross the Odon river and hold the area which had been taken, and the 15th Division was to continue to expand its bridgehead. In addition, the 11th Armoured Division would attempt to force a crossing over the Orne river and advance on its final objective, Bretteville sur Laize. Though attached to the 11th Armoured Division, Brigadier J. C. Currie’s 4th Armoured Brigade was limited to operations between the Odon and Orne rivers, both to protect the VIII Corps’s left flank and to be a position to attack either to the west, or to the east in the direction of Caen, as demanded by the situation.
Depending on the success of the VIII Corps’ attack, the I Corps on the left of the VIII Corps would then launch two supporting operations, codenamed ‘Aberlour’ and ‘Ottawa’. In the former Major General T. G. Rennie’s British 3rd Division, supported by a Canadian brigade, would attack straight to the south in the direction of Caen, and in the latter the Canadian 3rd Division, supported by Brigadier R. A. Wyman’s Canadian 2nd Armoured Brigade, would advance to the south-east with the task of taking the village and airfield of Carpiquet.
It was initially planned that ‘Epsom’ should be launched on 22 June, but the start date was then pushed back to 26 June so that the British and Canadian formations and units could be brought up to strength in men and matériel.
The initial opposition to ‘Epsom’ was expected to come from the already depleted 12th SS Panzerdivision as well as elements of the 21st Panzerdivision and Panzer-Lehr-Division.
On 23 June elements of Brigadier D. H. Haugh’s (from 27 June Brigadier A. J. H. Cassels’s) 152nd Brigade of the 51st Division started its diversionary attack. Before daybreak and without an initial artillery barrage, the infantry advanced in silence toward Ste Honorine la Chardronette, taking the village’s German garrison by surprise and gaining complete control before sunrise. During the morning elements of Major Hans von Luck’s Kampfgruppe ‘von Luck’ of the 21st Panzerdivision counterattacked. The fighting lasted all morning, but at 12.000 the village was still firmly in British hands. This success diverted German attention and resources away from the VIII Corps’ front as this formation prepared for further attacks out of the Orne river bridgehead.
At 04.15 on 25 June, the 49th Division, supported by 250 pieces of artillery and Cracroft’s 8th Armoured Brigade attached to the British 3rd Division, launched ‘Martlet’ against elements of the Panzer-Lehr-Division and 12th SS Panzerdivision. Fighting for the operation’s first objective, the village of Fontenay le Pesnel, lasted all day, but stubborn German resistance prevented its capture. One British infantry battalion, supported by tanks, advanced around the village to the west and took the Bois de Tessel, but was subjected to a series of German counterattacks. These were blunted by British artillery fire and close air support, but by the end of the day the 49th Division had failed to take its objective, the village of Rauray, leaving the terrain dominating the right flank of the VIII Corps’ intended advance in German hands. However, ‘Martlet’ did force the I SS Panzerkorps to commit the remaining armour of the 12th SS Panzerdivision to the XXX Corps’ front for a counterattack planned for the following day. During the night, the Germans in Fontenay le Pesnel withdrew to straighten their line, and men of the 49th Division secured the village before dawn.
On 26 June the start of ‘Epsom’ proper was adversely affected by bad weather on the battlefield, where there was a heavy mist and rain had made the ground very soft, and over southern England during the early hours of the morning, resulting in the grounding of warplanes and the calling off of the planned bombing missions. But Air Vice Marshal H. Broadhurst’s No. 83 Group of the RAF, already operating from airfields in the Normandy lodgement, was able to provide air support throughout the operation.
The 49th Division resumed ‘Martlet’ at 06.50, although without significant artillery support as this had been diverted to the support of ‘Epsom’. The Germans were able to slow the British advance, and then launched an armoured counterattack. This initially gained ground, but was halted when British armour moved up, and the two sides became embroiled in a tank battle in the confined terrain. Then, after he had been informed during the afternoon that a major British offensive was under way farther to the east, Meyer called off the counterattack of his 12th SS Panzerdivision and ordered his units to fall back to their initial positions of Rauray. During the rest of the day the 49th Division was able to make progress, halting just north of Rauray.
At 07.30 Brigadier H. D. K. Money’s 44th Brigade and Brigadier C. M. Barber’s 46th Brigade of the 15th Division, supported by Brigadier G. S. Knight’s 31st Tank Brigade, moved forward behind a rolling barrage fired by 344 pieces of artillery. The 46th Brigade initially advanced without armoured support, because in bypassing Le Mesnil Patry, which was known to be liberally strewn with mines and booby traps, its tanks were forced to negotiate the minefields flanking the village. The infantry advance had mixed results: the 2/Glasgow Highlanders faced only light resistance while 9/Cameronians ran into the grenadiers of the 12th SS Panzerdivision, who had allowed the barrage to pass over their positions before opening fire. Joining forces with their armoured support at about 10.00, by about 12.00 the two battalions were fighting for control of their initial objectives, namely Cheux and Le Haut du Bosq.
The 44th Brigade, which had not faced the same problems as the 46th Brigade and advanced with its tank support, encountered little opposition until it was taken under machine gun fire at a small stream, and this marked the start of a steadily more effective German resistance. Between 08.30 and 09.30, the 6/Royal Scots Fusiliers and 8/Royal Scots reached their initial objectives, Ste Manvieu and La Gaule. After much close-quarter combat, the Scots believed the villages to be completely in their hands by a time just after 12.00, though they subsequently discovered that some German remnants were still holding out. Tanks and infantry of the 12th SS Panzerdivision and 21st Panzerdivision were then committed to a pair of counterattacks designed to restore the German position in Ste Manvieu, but both were beaten off with the aid of intensive artillery fire. The main German opposition in this section of the outpost line had been elements of the 12th SS Panzerdivision’s 1/2nd SS Panzergrenadierregiment, which had been mostly overrun, and the 12th SS Pionierabteilung.
The Germans in Rauray, which had not been captured as planned during the previous day, were able to subject the British brigades to observed artillery and indirect tank fire, causing considerable casualties and destruction, especially in the village of Cheux. At 12.50, to the north of Cheux, one squadron of the 11th Armoured Division’s reconnaissance regiment was ordered to advance toward the Odon river as the division’s 29th Armoured Brigade, under Brigadier C. B. C. Harvey, prepared to rush the bridges. But as a result of minefields near the village, debris blocking its streets, and German holdouts attacking the tanks, it was not until 14.00 that the regiment was finally able to make progress. By 14.30 the squadron had reached a ridge to the south of Cheux, where it was tackled by some 20 PzKpfw IV tanks, diverted by the 12th SS Panzerdivision from the Rauray area, Tiger tanks of the 3/101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung, and other armour of the 21st Panzerdivision. More of the 11th Armoured Division’s tanks arrived, but determined German resistance halted any further advance and by the end of the day the 11th Armoured Division had lost 21 tanks.
It was at 18.00 that the 15th Division’s third major element, Brigadier E. C. Colville’s 227th Brigade, was committed to the battle. But the highland Scottish battalions of this brigade became bogged down with fighting in support of the rest of the division, and only two companies of the 2/Gordon Highlanders made much progress. They had entered the northern outskirts of Colleville by 21.00, but soon found themselves cut off by German counterattacks. After heavy and confused fighting one company was able to break out and rejoin the battalion.
To stop the British offensive, during the evening Rommel ordered assistance from all available units of the II SS Panzerkorps. But as no other attacks materialised during the night, the German command came to believe that the British offensive had been halted, so during the early hours of 27 June the II SS Panzerkorps was ordered to resume preparations for its counterattack toward Bayeux.
On the right of the British advance, the I SS Panzerkorps launched a counterattack employing 80 tanks: this effort was disorganised by artillery fire and then beaten back by the anti-tank guns of the 49th Division, which then resumed its attempt to secure the VIII Corps’ right flank.
The village of Rauray was finally taken by the 49th Division at 16.00 on 27 June, after further heavy fighting against the 12th SS Panzerdivision’s two Panzergrenadier regiments. German forces had been diverted from their opposition to the VIII Corps’ advance, and the fall of Rauray denied the Germans an important observation point, although they remained in control of an area of high ground farther to the south.
The British resumed ‘Epsom’ at 04.45 when the 10/Highland Light Infantry of the 227th Brigade moved forward once more. With support from Churchill infantry tanks, the battalion intended to make a bid for the Odon river crossing at Gavrus, but the Scottish battalions immediately ran into stiff opposition from elements of the 12th SS Panzerdivision, and despite strong artillery support were unable to advance all day. Casualties were heavy on both sides. At 07.30 the 2/Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, also of the 227th Brigade, launched an attack to take the Odon river crossing at Tourmauville, to the north-west of Baron sur Odon. With the available German forces already engaged by the Highland Light Infantry, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, supported by the 23rd Hussars, were able to advance as far as Colleville sur Mer with relative ease. However, the small German garrison there, supported by 88-mm (3.465-in) dual-purpose guns, inflicted heavy casualties upon the British and denied them the village until the afternoon. With this last obstacle cleared, the battalion seized the bridge at Tourmauville at about 17.00 and established a bridgehead on the southern bank. By 19.00, two depleted squadrons of the 23rd Hussars, and a company of the 8/Rifle Brigade, had crossed the Odon river into the bridgehead.
The remainder of the 15th Division was now located round Cheux and Ste Manvieu, and was in the process of being relieved by the 43rd Division. One of this latter formation’s battalions, the 5/Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, moved into the outskirts of Cheux and discovered that the Scottish infantry had already moved on and the vacated position had been reoccupied by grenadiers of the 12th SS Panzerdivision. After battling to recapture the position, at 09.30 the battalion was counterattacked by six Panther tanks of the 2nd Panzerdivision. The German attack penetrated into the outskirts of Cheux, destroying several anti-tank guns before it was beaten off. Further attacks by the 2nd Panzerdivision were halted, but the entire front was now an intermingled number of small actions.
For the rest of the morning and the entire afternoon, the Scottish infantry along with the 4th and 29th Armoured Brigades expanded the salient to the north of the Odon river and secured the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders’ rear. During late evening, the men of Brigadier J. G. Sandie’s 159th Brigade of the 11th Armoured Division were transported in trucks through the narrow ‘Scottish Corridor’ to Tourville, where they dismounted and crossed the Odon river on foot to reinforce the bridgehead.
During the night SS-Obersturmbannführer Otto Weidinger’s Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’, a 2,500-strong battle group of Lammerding’s 2nd SS Panzerdivision ‘Das Reich’, arrived at the front and came under the initial command of the Panzer-Lehr-Division. In the early hours of 28 June, SS-Obersturmbannführer Albert Frey’s Kampfgruppe ‘Frey’ of the 1st SS Panzerdivision also reached the front and was placed under the command of the 12th SS Panzerdivision.
At 08.10 Generaloberst Friedrich Dollmann, commanding the 7th Army, ordered Hausser to divert his II SS Panzerkorps to counterattack in the area to the south of Cheux. Hausser replied that no counterattack could be launched until the following day, as a large number of his units had yet to reach the front. Before any plans could be finalised, the German command in this sector of the front was thrown into disarray by Dollmann’s death, as a result of suicide or a heart attack: both Rommel and Generalfeldmarschall Gerd von Rundstedt, the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’, were on their way to a conference with Hitler, and were therefore out of touch with the situation. Consequently it was not until 15.00 that Hausser was appointed the new commander of the 7th Army, whereupon command of the II SS Panzerkorps passed to Bittrich. Pending the return of Rommel to Normandy, Hausser also became the German supreme commander in the invasion area. At 17.00 the command structure was again redrawn: the 7th Army was to be responsible for the invasion front facing the US forces in the west, and General Leo Freiherr Geyr von Schweppenburg’s Panzergruppe ‘West’ was to be responsible for the invasion front facing the British and Canadian forces in the east.
At 05.30 tank-supported elements of the 15th Division launched a new assault to capture the village of Grainville sur Odon. After shelling and close-quarter street fighting, the Scots had secured the village by 13.00. There followed several German counterattacks, but all of these were driven back. At 06.00 the Germans then began two strong flanking attacks with the intention of pinching out the British salient. The Kampfgruppe ‘Frey’, on the eastern side of the salient, launched an attack to the north of the Odon river with the support of PzKpfw IV tanks of the 21st Panzerdivision. This reached the villages of Mouen and Tourville, but the British counterattacked from the direction of Cheux, resulting in confused and heavy fighting throughout the day. Frey’s battle group managed to gain control of Mouen and, while their counterattacks supported by tanks halted any further German advance, the British could not retake the village. Meanwhile British patrols found Marcelet partially abandoned, the German front line having been pulled back toward Carpiquet.
On the western side of the salient, the Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’, supported by Panther tanks, advanced with the object of retaking Brettevillette, Grainville sur Odon and ultimately Mondrainville. The four British infantry and two tank battalions held their positions, launching local counterattacks to retake lost ground, and eventually the German offensive ground to a halt within 0.6 miles (1 km) of linking with the leading elements of the Kampfgruppe ‘Frey’.
To the south of the Odon river, at 09.00 the Argyll and the Sutherland Highlanders advanced out of the bridgehead to take a bridge to the north of the village of Gavrus. Heavy fighting lasted into the afternoon before both the village and the bridge were in Scottish hands.
Meanwhile infantry from the 11th Armoured Division expanded the bridgehead itself by taking the village of Baron sur Odon, and the 23rd Hussars with infantry support advanced on Hill 112. Having secured its northern slope and dislodged the defenders from its crest, the British infantry was unable to advance farther in the face of strong resistance from forces dug in on the hill’s reverse slope. Several unsuccessful counterattacks were launched by 12th SS Panzerdivision, and the battered hussars were relieved at 15.00 by the 3rd Royal Tank Regiment, but neither side was able to take complete control of the hill. The 11th Armoured Division had lost nearly 40 tanks on the hill’s slopes by the end of the day, and was surrounded on three sides, but support troops had managed to reach and reinforce the position.
On the following day, 29 June, the weather improved over southern England as well as over Normandy, allowing the use of powerful British close-support air elements, and as a result Hausser’s preparations for his counter stroke came under steady harassment from warplanes and artillery. Thus the start time was pushed back to the afternoon. From aerial reconnaissance and the number of German reinforcements arriving in the VIII Corps’ sector, O’Connor rightly suspected that the Germans were organising a major effort. The XXX Corps was still some way to the north, leaving the VIII Corps’ right flank vulnerable, so O’Connor postponed the planned attacks by the I Corps and ordered the VIII Corps to adopt a defensive posture. Privy to ‘Ultra’ decrypts of intercepted German signal traffic, Dempsey knew of the planned counterattack and approved O’Connor’s precautions. Having moved to the defensive, the VIII Corps began a reorganisation to meet the anticipated attack.
The supply echelons for Hausser’s divisions were located in the area of Evrecy, Noyers Bocage and Villers Bocage, and were harried by RAF fighter-bombers throughout the morning and early afternoon, the RAF’s warplanes claiming the destruction of more than 200 vehicles. The VIII Corps also launched spoiling attacks. At 08.00 the 1/Worcesters of the 43rd Division assaulted Mouen. Without armour, but supported by an artillery barrage, the battalion had evicted the Panzergrenadiers of the 1st SS Panzerdivision by 11.00, and after this the 7/Somerset Light Infantry moved up and dug in on the road linking Caen and Villers Bocage. Brigadier G. H. L. Mole’s 129th Brigade of the 43rd Division swept the woods and orchards around Tourville sur Odon before crossing the river to the north of Baron sur Odon and embarking on the clearance of the southern bank. Other initiatives were less successful. An attempt by Money’s 44th Brigade of the 15th Division to advance toward the Odon river and link with the force holding the Gavrus bridges failed, leaving this position isolated, and in the salient the 44/Royal Tank Regiment failed to capture Hill 113, to the north of Evrecy, after clashing with the 10th SS Panzerdivision and losing six tanks. Seeking to strengthen their position, elements of the 11th Armoured Division launched an unsuccessful attack to take Esquay Notre Dame, to the west of Hill 112, but a combined infantry and tank attack on the southern slope of the hill was more successful, driving the Germans from the position.
Hausser intended Bittrich’s (from 29 June Oberführer Thomas Müller’s) 9th SS Panzerdivision of the II SS Panzer Corps, with the Kampfgruppe ‘Weidinger’ shielding its left flank, to cut right across the British salient to the north of the Odon river, while the 10th SS Panzerdivision was to retake Gavrus and Hill 112 to the south of the river. The 9th SS Panzerdivision’s attack began at 14.00 with heavy artillery support. The division’s 19th Panzergrenadierregiment and 20th Panzergrenadierregiment, supported by Panther tanks, PzKpfw IV tanks and assault guns, attacked Grainville, Le Haut du Bosq and Le Valtru, aiming for Cheux as their final objective. A British company was overrun, and tanks and infantry penetrated into Le Valtru, but anti-tank guns knocked out four German tanks within the village and artillery fire forced their supporting infantry to withdraw. Heavy and confused fighting occurred outside Grainville. Panzergrenadiers captured a tactically vital wood, but were forced back by a British counterattack. The Panzergrenadiers claimed that they also captured Grainville, but no British sources support this, and by the fall of night British infantry were in firm control of the village.
At about 16.00 the British captured an officer of the 9th SS Panzerdivision as he was undertaking a reconnaissance, and this officer was found to be carrying a map and notebook containing details of imminent German attacks. Even so, at about 18.30 the Germans resumed their attacks on the 15th Division’s right flank. One British unit was in the process of relieving another, and in the confusion German tanks and infantry slipped through the British defences, some units managing to advance 2 miles (3.2 km) before encountering strong resistance. By 23.00 the 9th SS Panzerdivision had been stopped.
Additional supporting attacks against the British eastern flank had been planned, but the concentration of German armour in the Carpiquet area had been so severely handled by RAF fighter-bombers during the afternoon that the attacks did not start.
The 10th SS Panzerdivision launched its attack at 14.30, a time somewhat later than had been planned. As a result of clashes earlier in the day, the British were ready and waiting, but after five hours of intense combat the Scottish infantry defending Gavrus had been pushed back into a pocket around the bridge to the north of the village. An artillery bombardment caused the Germans to withdraw, but the British did not reoccupy the village. Moving toward Hill 113, elements of the 10th SS Panzerdivision encountered British tanks and infantry in Evrecy, thwarting their attempt to occupy the hill. Dealing with this obstacle took the remainder of the day, so the division’s planned attack on Hill 112 was postponed. The Germans claimed the destruction of 28 tanks, while the British record the loss of only 12.
Believing the aggressive German actions throughout 29 June indicated that more major counterattacks were to be launched on the following day, Dempsey reinforced the Odon river bridgehead with a brigade of the 43rd Division and also pulled in and thereby shortened its perimeter. Sandie’s 159th Brigade of the 11th Armoured Division was placed under the command of the 15th Division and, acceding to O’Connor’s wishes for additional infantry, Dempsey attached Major General R. K. Ross’s newly arrived 53rd Division to the VIII Corps, the division’s leading brigade arriving near the ‘Epsom’ start line during the night. In order to retain possession of Hill 112, Dempsey recognised that he would also need to hold Evrecy and Hill 113, a task that for which, at the moment, he did not have the resources. Dempsey thus ordered Harvey’s 29th Armoured Brigade to abandon the hill. Convinced that the key position to hold was that between Rauray and the Odon river, Dempsey withdrew the 29th Armoured Brigade to the north, across the river, after dark so that it would be in a position to meet the expected renewed German counterattack.
Bittrich was greatly concerned by the failure of the II SS Panzerkorps to effect any significant reduction of the British salient, and he ordered a resumption of the offensive during the night of 29/30 June, hoping that a night operation would leave his units free from the attentions of the Allied air support elements. The 19th Panzergrenadierregiment and 20th Panzergrenadierregiment of the 9th SS Panzerdivision therefore renewed their attacks against Grainville sur Odon and Le Valtru during the night, but made little progress against the opposition of the tanks of the 11th Armoured Division, now in position to the north of the Odon river, and heavy artillery bombardments.
At 01.20 the 10th SS Panzerdivision started to move toward Hill 112 and, at dawn and under cover of a heavy artillery barrage, attacked the vacated British positions. Unaware that the British had pulled back, the Panzergrenadiers and tanks of the 10th SS Panzerdivision advanced on the hill from the south and south-west, while infantry of the 12th SS Panzerdivision assaulted from the east and south-east. Meeting no opposition, by 12.00 the Germans had firmly installed themselves on Hill 112, but a British counterattack and artillery fire broke up a follow-on attack toward Baron sur Odon.
With only limited results achieved thus far, Bittrich called off further offensive action. In the evening Hausser informed Rommel’s headquarters that his counterattacks had been temporarily suspended as a result of ‘tenacious enemy resistance’ and intensive Allied artillery and naval gunfire.
Unaware of this, and believing that more German attacks would follow, Dempsey terminated ‘Epsom’, and the front gradually settled save for minor and inconclusive skirmishing, although both sides spent the remainder of the day heavily shelling one another. The 16-in (406-mm) guns of the battleship Rodney contributed by bombarding villages suspected of containing German command centres: one of these was later confirmed to have housed the headquarters of the I SS Panzerkorps.
With no further British offensive moves planned for the short term, during the afternoon the Gavrus bridges were given up as their Scottish defenders were withdrawn across the Odon river. At 20.30 the town of Villers Bocage, a vital traffic centre for the German forces, was destroyed by 250 RAF heavy bombers. It was hoped that German troops would be caught by the bombing, but only French civilians were present at the time.
The II SS Panzerkorps resumed its counter-offensive on 1 July, after spending most of the preceding 24 hours regrouping. Unaware that the British had ended their operation, and with overcast weather interfering with Allied air support, Bittrich believed he had an opportunity to prevent the 11th Armoured Division continuing its advance across the Orne river. Before dawn the 10th SS Panzerdivision moved off, supported by heavy mortar and artillery fire. The Germans quickly took the village of Baron sur Odon, but a counterattack by Knight’s 31st Tank Brigade won it back by 12.00. Heavy shelling broke up other attacks by the 10th SS Panzerdivision from Hill 112, and British patrols later found an estimated 300 to 400 dead Panzergrenadiers on the northern slope of the hill.
The 9th SS Panzerdivision spent the day attempting to force the British lines between Rauray and the Odon river. Supplemented by Panzergrenadiers of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision and following a preliminary artillery barrage, tanks and infantry of 9th SS Panzerdivision advanced behind a smoke screen and succeeded in breaking through the outer British defences. However, the assault was halted by secondary positions in front of Rauray and on high ground to the south-east, though some German elements penetrated as far as Haut du Bosq. Further German attacks throughout the day were met with intense artillery fire and made no progress, and in the early evening a British counterattack, utilising Sherman medium tanks and Churchill Crocodile flamethrowing tanks, restored the front to the line at the start of the day. Casualties were heavy on both sides: 30 German tanks were claimed destroyed, mostly by the 49th Division.
Elements of the 12th SS Panzerdivision had been repulsed during the morning, and artillery fire halted attacks from other formations. Having been obliged to use his last strategic reserves to bring the British offensive to a halt, on 29 June Rommel requested permission from Hitler to allow the 7th Army to begin a fighting withdrawal toward the Seine river, a move which would be mirrored by German forces in southern France to form a new front line along the Seine toward the Swiss border. This request was partially endorsed by Hausser, who on 30 June proposed pulling back from Caen. Encouraged by the outcome of the fighting in the Odon river valley, however, Hitler stated that ‘we must not allow mobile warfare to develop’, committing his troops in Normandy to ‘a policy of aggressive and unyielding defence’.
On 2 July, Scottish patrols produced the first evidence of this, reporting that to the south of the Odon river the Germans were digging in. Aerial reconnaissance two days later provided confirmation of this fact, showing large numbers of newly dug weapon positions, and by 8 July the German forces facing the VIII Corps had fully entrenched themselves. Some local adjustments occurred as both sides sought to improve their tactical positions, with the 12th SS Panzerdivision launching a successful attack to capture Fontaine Etoupefour on 2 July.
The serious losses sustained in maintaining an increasingly costly static defence led to serious disputes within the German high command. On the evening of 1 July, in a conversation with Generalfeldmarschall Wilhelm Keitel, head of the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, von Rundstedt advised ‘Make peace, you fools.’ Shortly after this, von Rundstedt was replaced as the Oberbefehlshaber ‘West’ by Generalfeldmarschall Günther von Kluge, and as a result of disagreements with Hitler over how the campaign should be conducted, von Schweppenburg was replaced as commander of the Panzergruppe ‘West’ by General Heinrich Eberbach.
During the lull in the fighting which now followed, each side made several changes to the disposition of its forces. On the Allied side, the 53rd Division relieved the 15th Division in the west of the British salient, while the 43rd Division relieved the infantry of the 11th Armoured Division, which was still holding the Odon river bridgehead. On the German side, Generalleutnant Albert Praunmans’s 277th Division moved forward to replaced the 9th SS Panzerdivision and the Kampfgruppe of the 2nd SS Panzerdivision.
A few days later the 2nd Army launched a new offensive, codenamed ‘Charnwood’, to gain possession of Caen, and this incorporated the postponed attack on Carpiquet, originally planned as ‘Ottawa’ for implementation within ‘Epsom’ but now codenamed ‘Windsor’. In a frontal assault the northern half of the city was captured, with the remaining portions being taken during ‘Atlantic’ and ‘Goodwood’ in the third week of July. The fighting in the Odon river valley continued: on 10 July ‘Jupiter’ (ii) was launched by the VIII Corps to push back the German forces near the village of Baron sur Odon, retake Hill 112, and advance to the Orne river. Additionally, the 2nd Battle of the Odon was launched on 15 July as 'Greenline' and 'Pomegranate' to divert German attention from the ground over which ‘Goodwood’ would be fought, and this second battle has been called one of the bloodiest encounters of the campaign.
‘Epsom’ itself cost the British 4,020 casualties, and the Germans 2,662 men as well as 126 armoured fighting vehicles destroyed.