This was the British second attempt by Lieutenant General Sir Miles Dempsey’s 2nd Army of General Sir Bernard Montgomery’s Allied 21st Army Group to take Caen on the southern edge of the ‘Overlord’ lodgement (7/19 June 1944).
The operation envisaged that Lieutenant General J. T. Crocker’s I Corps and Lieutenant General G. C. Bucknall’s XXX Corps would advance to the south from the eastern and western parts of the 2nd Army’s front to encircle the city of Caen, with Major General R. E. Urquhart’s 1st Airborne Division to land, in ‘Wild Oats’, between the two corps’ vanguards to complete the encirclement of Caen and prevent any German withdrawal from the city.
In greater detail, Major General D. C. Bullen-Smith’s 51st Division of the I Corps was to push to the south out of the Orne river bridgehead through Generalleutnant Edgar Feuchtinger’s 21st Panzerdivision of SS-Oberstgruppenführer und General der Waffen-SS Josef Dietrich’s I SS Panzerkorps in order to take the town of Cagny some 6 miles (10 km) to the south-east of Caen. Major General D. A. H. Graham’s 50th Division of the XXX Corps was to advance to the south from its lodgement against Generalleutnant Fritz Bayerlein’s Panzer-Lehr-Division of General Hans Freiherr von Funck’s XLVII Panzerkorps in order to take Bayeux and then Tilly sur Seulles. Once the latter had been taken, Major General G. W. E. J. Erskine’s 7th Armoured Division was to pass through the 50th Division and push farther to the south in order to capture Villers Bocage before turning to the east to take Evrecy.
However, the RAF refused to undertake the dropping of the 1st Airborne Division in the area to the south of Caen to support the next step of the operation, following the capture of Tilly sur Seulles, because of what it perceived as an unacceptably high risk factor to aircraft and crews.
Montgomery nonetheless decided to proceed with the basic plan but without the use of the airborne formation and, in a wider context, Dempsey hoped that this operation would allow his 2nd Army to break out to the south-east across the Orne river into the better tank country around the upper reaches of the Aure river. On the right of the XXX Corps’ advance, Bayeux, one of the corps’ D-Day objectives, was captured on 7 June against only minimal opposition. On the left, however, the corps’ advance bogged down in front of Tilly sur Seulles.
The Panzer-Lehr-Division offered a determined resistance to halt both the 50th Division and 7th Armoured Division, which were both thrown at this single German division, and it was during the morning of 12 June that Bucknall appreciated the fact that the Panzer-Lehr-Division’s determination to hold the area between the Seulles and Aure rivers made it highly improbable that the 7th Armoured Division could achieve an advance of any momentum in the area. In the area to the west of the Aure river, however, there seemed to be a weakness in the German defence, for here the forces of Major General Leonard T. Gerow’s US V Corps of Lieutenant General Omar N. Bradley’s US 1st Army were moving to the south in the direction of Caumont l’Eventé and encountering little opposition, Generalleutnant Dietrich Kraiss’s 352nd Division having been ordered to fall back on the night of 9/10 June after receiving a battering by the US forces.
The US approach to Caumont l’Eventé was slowly opening a gap in the German lines at the junction of the XXX Corps and V Corps. This gap soon widened to 7.5 miles (12 km) and, appreciating the opportunity so created, Bucknall and Dempsey therefore decided that while the 50th Division continued its effort on the existing front round La Belle Epine, the 7th Armoured Division would pull back from the area of Bucéels, just to the east, pass to the west behind the 50th Division across the Aure river, and outflank the German front defended by the Panzer-Lehr-Division on the road between Tilly sur Seulles and Balleroy, drive to the south in the direction of the Caumont area, and finally wheel to the east to take Villers Bocage and the commanding Point 213 ridge from the west.
It was hoped that the appearance of British armour in the rear of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, and occupying the high ground and important lines of communication, would force the Germans to withdraw from Tilly sur Seulles or otherwise surrender, and so revive the operation to capture Caen. But the Germans were all too aware of this high ground’s tactical importance and that the British would most likely want to capture it. Accordingly they despatched elements of the 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung to close any gaps on the Panzer-Lehr-Division’s left flank and to keep the high ground out of British hands. The first part of this force, SS-Obersturmführer Michael Wittmann’s 2nd SS schwere Panzerkompanie, was down to just six serviceable tanks after a five-day road march from Beauvais, and had reached the area only during the previous night.
Most of the 7th Armoured Division began its assigned movement during the afternoon of 12 June. The division now had available its own lorried infantry element, in the form of Brigadier M. S. Ekins’s 131st Brigade, and thus Brigadier E. C. Pepper’s 56th Brigade was returned to its parent formation, the 50th Division.
The whole undertaking started well, and after crossing the Aure river the 7th Armoured Division turned to the south. By 22.00 on 12 June the leading elements of Brigadier W. R. N. Hinde’s 22nd Armoured Brigade had reached Livry, some 2 miles (3.2 km) from Caumont and 5 miles (8 km) from Villers Bocage, the hub of the road network to Caen from the west. In order to conceal its intentions, the brigade halted near Livry for the night, and during this time the leading units of the 131st Brigade closed up behind it.
Early in the morning of 13 June the 22nd Armoured Brigade wheeled to the south-east to take the Villers Bocage ridge. The Sharpshooters (4/County of London Yeomanry) led with a company of the motor battalion, the Rifle Brigade. Behind them were the second armoured regiment (5th Royal Tank Regiment) and two infantry battalions of the 131st Brigade (1/5th and 1/7th The Queen’s Regiment). Squadrons of the 8th King’s Royal Irish Hussars, the divisional reconnaissance regiment, and the 11th Hussars armoured car regiment, covering their flanks, met a number of German tanks, but the British reached Villers Bocage without major problems. A squadron of the Sharpshooters (with the regimental headquarters) and a company of the Rifle Brigade drove through the town and out along the wood-flanked road rising to Point 213 on the way to Caen. While the tanks went forward, the company of the Rifle Brigade and the rest of the British force were halted behind the crest of the hill.
The British were wholly unaware of the fact that elements of the 2nd schwere Panzerkompanie had been ordered to occupy and hold Point 213. The German armoured company had moved to the area during the night to avoid detection by Allied aircraft, and this force of five PzKpfw VI Tiger heavy tanks and one PzKpfw IV medium tank was concealed in the woods some 165 yards (150 m) to the south of the road.
The British force moving to Point 213 comprised one reinforced tank squadron and one motorised infantry company, totalling some 200 vehicles. Villers Bocage and Point 213 were both unoccupied as the action started, and both sides raced to take the high ground and so gain the tactical advantage. While the British forces arrived in the town of Villers Bocage first, Wittmann’s unit gained Point 213 and could observe the British movements. The British in the town suffered from poor tactical deployment and were initially crowded by civilians delighted by their apparent liberation. The four tanks of the tank squadron’s command group parked and the crews dismounted. The men and vehicles of the battle group did not form an all-around defence as they should have done, security was poor, and no adequate reconnaissance of Point 213 was undertaken.
A combined tank and infantry force was finally despatched from Villers Bocage to take Point 213. Wittmann watched the column of the 4/County of London Yeomanry leave Villers Bocage in the direction of Point 213, travelling in close proximity to each other along a sunken road. The lead squadron halted on the road without deploying into a defensive position, allowing the half-tracks and carriers of the accompanying infantry to pass. Wittmann seized the opportunity and decided to attack with one tank between Point 213 and Villers Bocage, cutting off the 4/County of London Yeomanry’s A Squadron, and instructed his the two other operational tanks with him to hold their position. Wittmann counted on the effect of surprise to inflict the greatest possible losses on the British while waiting for reinforcements.
Wittmann’s Tiger attacked at 09.00, and just minutes later destroyed three tanks (a Sherman Firefly and a Cromwell on the right and another tank on the left) at the head of the British column, which was therefore trapped, and then without a pause moved to the south-west toward Villers Bocage to tackle the lightly armoured vehicles of The Rifle Brigade. During this engagement, he destroyed nine half-tracked vehicles, four Carden Loyd Carriers, two other carriers, and two 6-pdr anti-tank guns, then destroyed three Stuart light tanks and one half-tracked vehicle. Entering Villers Bocage alone, Wittmann then destroyed three of the four Cromwell tanks in position at the top of the Lemonnier farm. Wittmann then moved along the Rue Clémenceau, in which he destroyed two Sherman command tanks of the 5/Royal Horse Artillery before knocking out another scout car and a half-track. As Wittmann arrived at the Place Jeanne d’Arc, he was faced by one Sherman Firefly, whose 17-pdr gun was the only Allied main tank gun capable of defeating the frontal armour of a Tiger in most circumstances. The Sherman Firefly fired four rounds at Wittmann’s Tiger: one struck the Tiger’s hull, and Wittmann returned fire, knocking a section of wall down onto the Sherman Firefly. Wittmann then made a half-turn, his tank lightly damaged, and returned down the Rue Clémenceau. A surviving Cromwell tank opened fire with its 75-mm (2.95-in) gun, hitting Wittmann’s Tiger twice without effect. Returning fire, Wittmann’s tank put the Cromwell out of action with one shot.
As Wittmann’s Tiger started to leave Villers Bocage, its left track was hit by a 6-pdr projectile, forcing him to stop on the street. Wittmann then engaged the targets in sight and in range. Thinking that the Tiger might be salvaged and repaired later, Wittmann and crew finally abandoned the tank without destroying it, leaving the area on foot but without weapons.
The five Germans later reached the headquarters of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, almost 4.35 miles (7 km) away and, as a result of Wittmann’s report, 15 PzKpfw IV tanks of the 2/130th Panzerregiment left Orbois in the direction of Villers Bocage under the command of Hauptmann Helmut Ritgen with the aim of blocking the exits to the north. Before reaching their objective, they were checked by the fire of British anti-tank guns. Bayerlein ordered the PzKpfw IV tanks to pull back and regroup at Villers Bocage.
The tanks took the direction of the castle of Parfouru sur Odon, where the 14 surviving tanks were repaired before advancing once again on Villers Bocage under the command of Hannes Philipsen: four of the tanks moved in from the south and the other 10 along the Rue Clémenceau. Each of the two groups lost two tanks. Wittmann was then brought back to Point 213, where he joined Karl Mobius, commander of the 1st schwere SS Panzerkompanie and discussed the 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung’s planned second attack.
The tanks of the 1st SS schwere Panzerkompanie entered the little town along the Rue d’Evrecy and joined those of the Panzer-Lehr-Division in the market place to undertake a co-ordinated attack. This forces was deployed to occupy Villers-Bocage from the Rue Pasteur toward the Place Jeanne d’Arc, on the Rue St Germain, on the Rue Emile Samson and toward the junction of the Rue Jeanne Bacon and the Boulevard Joffre.
The British resistance had been organised by this time, however, so the Germans no longer had the element of tactical surprise. Thus one 6-pdr anti-tank gun of the 1/7th Queen’s, in the Rue Jeanne Bacon, scored hits on three Tigers, only one of which could be repaired. The British units had suffered severely in the Germans’ initial attack, but had held the town and its all-important crossroads.
The Germans now broke contact, but later managed to execute several strong counterattacks on Villers Bocage, where the position of the 7th Armoured Division’s leading elements was precarious. Support for the British was available from several sources, however. An accompanying US artillery forward observer called in very heavy and accurate artillery fire to break up one German attack. Several uncommitted infantry brigades were available and could have been used to reinforce Villers Bocage, but right up the chain of command no one saw fit to call for help. With the town still in British hands, the 1/7th Queens of Brigadier M. S. Ekins’s 131st Brigade was moved up and took up positions in and around Villers Bocage. During the afternoon this battalion, together with B and C Squadrons of the 4/County of London Yeomanry fought a six-hour action against the German forces in the area, now comprising elements of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, more of the 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung and elements of Generalleutnant Heinrich Freiherr von Lüttwitz’s 2nd Panzerdivision, which resulted in many casualties on both sides including the loss of six more Tiger tanks before, at 16.00, the acting commander of the 4/City of London Yeomanry ordered his force to pull back from Villers Bocage, so ending the action.
With the withdrawal completed, elements of the division pulled back to Tracy Bocage, where they formed a large ‘brigade box’. On the following day the 7th Armoured Division was attacked several times by the Panzer-Lehr-Division, 2nd Panzerdivision and 101st SS schwere Panzerabteilung. Most of these German attacks were driven off with heavy loss, but some of the German assaults broke through the British lines and could be thrown back only by heavy hand-to-hand fighting during British counterattacks. To support it, the 7th Armoured Division had its own divisional artillery, and could also call on fire support from the 50th Division, XXX Corps and US V Corps, all which helped to repel several German assaults. After a full day of fighting the box was still intact and its garrison confident that it could hold the position until relieved. However, given the fact that the 50th Division was still unable to break through at Tilly sur Seulles, it was ordered to withdraw.
This was achieved under cover of a specially organised bombing raid which, it is estimated, killed or wounded up to 800 men of the attacking German formations and units, and also destroyed a significant number of German tanks.
On the morning of 14 June Montgomery abandoned the idea of a pincer attack on Caen as he believed that there was insufficient British strength for offensive action on both flanks. He proposed that the XXX Corps should continue the offensive alone in a ‘concentrated single blow’ and the movement of the 51st Division in the east be ‘piped down’. Unable to break through the defences of the Panzer-Lehr-Division, the 50th Division attacked towns and villages on the flank of Tilly near Lingevres. These attacks were a success, enabling the British infantry to nibble away at the German defence line.
The fighting for Tilly sur Seulles ended on 17 June after the town had been lost and recaptured 23 times before it was finally liberated. British forces entered the town for the final time several hours after the Panzer-Lehr-Division began its withdrawal. The withdrawal from Villers Bocage had ended British short-term hopes of opening the German front in the area to the south of Caen, and among those whose future as commanders were curtailed as a result of Villers Bocage were Bucknall, Erskine, Hinde and the commander of the 7th Armoured Division’s artillery, all of whom had been replaced by a time early in August 1944.